Hoover, Herbert

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Herbert Hoover

David Burner

ON 2 August 1927, on a summer trip in South Dakota, President Calvin Coolidge distributed to reporters copies of a simple message: "I do not choose to run for President in nineteen twenty-eight." He was quietly departing from a presidency that had quietly watched over a country enjoying what seemed to be permanent prosperity, rejoicing in seemingly limitless technological and scientific progress, and enormously proud of its institutions. In Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hooveran engineer, businessman, humanitarian, administrator, and in many respects political progressivethe nation saw a figure whose brilliantly successful career embodied its technical and economic talents, its generosity, its mythic story of the poor boy whose hard work brings him fame and wealth. Hoover would be the fitting Republican candidate and successor to Coolidge.

The campaign, with Charles Curtis as vice presidential candidate on Hoover's ticket, was all that the Republicans could have wanted. Governor Alfred E. Smith of New York, the Democratic candidate, had the political liability of his Roman Catholicism, which he compounded by appointing a Catholic to be Democratic national chairman. Smith blundered, or at any rate was stubbornly intractable, in his handling of the religious issue. He failed during the campaign to address specifically the fears of those Americans who thought of his religion as alien to the American tradition, and he acted as though any questions about his faith were an affront to be brushed aside. Further, although Smith opposed Prohibition at a time when it was proving itself a failure, this deepened the public perception of him as an eastern urbanite fixed to his Catholic ethnic constituency. Hoover's campaign looked toward an end to poverty, equivocated on Prohibition by calling it an experiment, and promised farmers an agricultural marketing act. But no matter who the Democratic candidate might have been or how the campaign might have proceeded, Hoover had on his side a national prosperity that was irresistible politically. Hoover received 21 million votes, and Smith, 15 million. The electoral vote was divided 444 to 87.

Early Life and Education

What sort of president did the public think it had chosen? How did Hoover perceive himself and his mandate? The course of Hoover's earlier career predicted to some extent the character of his presidency. Amid the rolling farms surrounding West Branch, Iowa, hacked out of the wildwood by his sturdy and independent forebears, Herbert Clark Hoover, born on 11 August 1874, experienced a childhood filled with both the grief and the pleasures of nineteenth-century small-town life. In later years he would reminisce about the pleasures: swimming in streams large enough to dam, eating wild strawberries in the fields, collecting agate and coral along the railroad tracks. The grief that struck the boy came in a form familiar to the western pioneers who frequently lost children and relatives to diphtheria, tuberculosis, and typhoid fever. When Bert was six years old, he lost his father, Jesse, an agricultural implements dealer who had long suffered from a form of heart disease. His mother, always religious, was a hard worker in temperance and Sunday school activities. After becoming a Quaker minister, she traveled to revival meetings, preaching the message of forgiveness and redeeming love. On her return from a winter trip, she died of pneumonia when Bert was nine. The boy himself had a close brush with death while suffering from croup.

The orphan shuttled between relatives on nearby farms until he left to live with an uncle in Oregon in late 1885. Such continuing abandonment and separation could have caused severe problems, but for the most part Hoover was later able to shut out the dark memories of his childhood, preferring not to speak of them and garbling his memory of dates and incidents. Certain possibilities about the emotional relationship between his early life and his adult career do suggest themselves. For example, one of young Hoover's favorite books was David Copper-field, the story of an orphan mistreated by adults. Yet Hoover arrived at a sort of rugged, progressive individualism. If he had to be alone, he would make the most of it. He made of his habitually outward-looking life an ideologyheroic individualism, the self-reliant man expressing himself in technological mastery and personal accomplishment. One particular reflection of his early life came in his relief efforts during the era of World War I: helpless, bereaved, abandoned people could count on his aid, though others had not always aided him. Hoover's later dislike of large inheritances also suggests the experience of being left on his own.

The Quaker idea of the Inner Light suggests a real but unseen decency, reasonableness, and harmony within the world. Among the Friends there is a special blend of piety and practical worldliness that expresses itself in business life, and a compound of moral urgency with a certain optimism that the world can be enticed to put its practical arrangements into good moral order. The Quakers immersed themselves in the full variety of nineteenth-century reforms: antislavery (West Branch was a station on the underground railroad, and John Brown spent one winter a mile outside of the town), suffrage for blacks, prison rehabilitation, Indian reform, poor-houses, and care of the insane. The progressive record of Hoover's first eight months in the White House suggests the influence of his Quaker upbringing.

Hoover's years in Oregon, from 1885 to 1891, trained him in business. John Minthorn, the stern uncle with whom he lived, was a doctor, a Quaker minister, and head of a small preparatory school, but his central interest was real estate. Dreaming of enticing settlers to the fertile Willamette Valley, he moved from Newberg to Salem to sell undeveloped land suitable for prune orchards. Hoover dropped out of high school to oversee the day-to-day operations of the Oregon Land Company and attended night school to learn bookkeeping, typing, and office skills. He helped buy and sell land and houses, run saw and flour mills, and arrange advertising in eastern papers. Before Minthorn's company failed in the depression of the 1890s, Hoover had already decided to attend Stanford University.

Hoover, who would later claim that he had been the first boy to take up residence at the new school (founded 1891), took advantage of the innovative curriculum. He received an excellent education in geology, taking about half of his credits in the department under Dr. John Branner and working summers for the U.S. Geological Survey. He also continued a career in business, organizing and selling laundry and newspaper routes. His social views expressed themselves in his disdain for fraternities on account of their snobbishness, and he would not allow his sons to join any at Stanford.

After Hoover was graduated from Stanford in 1895 with a B.A. in geology, he worked briefly as a day laborer in the Reward Gold Mine in Grass City, California. The experience won him a job with an important San Francisco firm that needed his practical knowledge of the Grass Valley mines for a legal case. This in turn led to a position with one of the world's leading mining consultant firms, Bewick, Moreing and Company of London.

Charles Algernon Moreing, desperate for qualified mining engineers willing to work the sultry wastes of the Western Australian goldfields, sent Hoover there in 1897. It was a good arrangement for the firm and for Hoover, who soon successfully recommended to London the purchase of the fabulous Sons of Gwalia gold mine. His other recommendations proved generally fruitful, and he showed increasing versatility as a mine manager and business consultant. Life in the Australian outback was not easy. The temperature frequently rose above 100°, even at night, and Hoover, suffering from physical debilitation brought on by overwork, would sometimes travel hundreds of miles through the desert lying on a mattress in the back of an open wagon. After three years in Australia, at the age of twenty-four, he was a recognized success and authority in his field. He wired Lou Henry, a Stanford geology major from Monterey, California, asking her to marry him, and she did early in 1899 in Monterey just before embarking with him to China on a new adventure.

Sent to China by Bewick, Moreing to find gold, Hoover arranged to exploit extensive and profitable coal deposits instead. He established relations with the Chinese Engineering and Mining Company just before the Boxer Rebellion of 1900 broke out, threatening the Western imperialist spheres of influence that had hitherto dominated China. In exchange for protection by the British, the Chinese signed the company over to Hoover, who in turn bartered it to Bewick, Moreing, in exchange for a partnership in that company. In China the Hoovers were trapped briefly in the city of Tianjin during the Boxer Rebellion; there he carried out relief efforts for the beleaguered European community similar to the famous work he would accomplish during and after World War I.

In 1901, Hoover and his wife made their home in London and raised two sons, Herbert and Allan, taking them sometimes on mining exploration trips around the world. On these ocean voyages, Hoover turned his attention to reading, giving himself some of the liberal arts education he had missed in the narrow curriculum of Stanford. He also wrote technical articles, which appeared in the world's professional mining magazines. He and his wife supervised and annotated the translation from Latin of De re metallica, a medieval treatise on mining that they published in 1912. Hoover also contributed thoughtful talks and editorials on the new profession of engineering. In a textbook, Principles of Mining (1909), he recommended progressive dealings with labor, favoring collective bargaining, high wages for hard work, and improvements in mine safety.

Hoover's most successful ventures after 1900 involved finding some great supply of base metal near a dependable transportation system. He would supply the world's growing industries, like steel, with needed base minerals. He achieved his greatest success, first with the help of his brother Theodore, after painfully slow experimentation with the extraction of zinc from slag heaps at Broken Hill in New South Wales, Australia. His second successful venture lay with the Burma Corporation, which produced silver, lead, and zinc in abundant quantities. By 1914, Hoover, operating on his own since 1907, had important investments on every continent and offices in San Francisco, London, St. Petersburg, and Mandalay. Once he remarked that if a man "has not made a million dollars by the time he is forty he is not worth much." Hoover was worth about $4 million at the beginning of World War I.

Relief Administrator, World War I

The outbreak of war in 1914 came at a fortuitous time for Hoover. The mining boom in both precious and base metals was beginning to spend itself, except perhaps in Russia. He was thinking now of employing in some philanthropic way his skill in public relations, tested at Stanford and refined in his years of mining promotion. An admirer of Theodore Roosevelt's progressivism, he had been thinking for some years of government service in appointive office. He was in London when war broke out in August, and the American ambassador, Walter Hines Page, asked him to aid Americans who had been stranded abroad at the onset of war. He did this with such efficiency that Page recommended to President Wilson that Hoover be drafted to help provide food for the Belgians, hitherto dependent on the importing of food, after the invasion of their country.

For the next three years Hoover headed the Commission for Relief in Belgium (CRB). Despite the stubbornness of both Germans and British, Hoover, using highhanded and sometimes illegal methods, employed his knowledge of worldwide shipping to bring a steady flow of food to the tiny country. He brought to his work ample technical and administrative skills, but more particularly the relentless energy and forcefulness of his personality. "This man," stated his German passport, "is not to be stopped anywhere under any circumstances."

The relief of Belgium, Hoover enthusiastically proclaimed, was "the greatest job Americans have undertaken in the cause of humanity." The result would be "the greatest charity the world has ever seen." Hoover himself remained shy and averse to publicity. He had, so it seemed, the simple Quaker distaste for such things: in Quakerism good works become tainted if publicized. All his life Hoover made a secret of his hundreds of benefactions.

Unquestionably an ambitious man, Hoover sought from President Wilson the post of United States food administrator even before the country formally entered the war in April 1917. Wilson, who could not question the effectiveness of the CRB, gave Hoover the job. Hoover realized that his earlier work in Belgium was a useful model for wartime administration and that his own reputation for being the "Great Engineer" put him in a unique position to help win the war. His name had become synonymous with thrift and self-denial, so that "Hooverize" came to mean "economize for a worthy purpose."

Propaganda was the main weapon of the Food Administration. It preached meatless and wheat-less days. A massive campaign enjoined those in control of households to cut down especially on the normal use of bread and sugar, and schools and churches joined the crusade. Yet Hoover, while preferring volunteerism, hastened to get congressional legislation, such as the Lever Food Control Act of 1917, which set a government-guaranteed price for wheat.

In 1919, Hoover managed to dispose of much of the wartime food surplus by selling it to European governments, which often borrowed from the United States for the purpose. Whatever the merits of the transaction, Hoover's American Relief Administration (ARA)a public agency replaced in mid-1919 by a private one bearing the same namegot the job done as well as could be expected. Hoover went to Europe, slashing through red tape everywhere he went. Without functioning European systems of transportation and communications, he had to create his own. Hoover violated laws, made laws, and transgressed the sanctity of international boundaries to get food to where it was most needed. He implicitly urged his subordinates to do likewise and to ignore local or centralized authority.

The Versailles Peace Conference, particularly its representatives from France, urged Hoover to withhold food to discourage the advance of bolshevism in eastern and central Europe. Whether Hoover consistently did so is still a matter of controversy. Hoover's most blatant use of food for political purposes was against a coup d'état by the reactionary Hapsburg monarchy in Hungary. For Hungary, under the leadership of the Bolshevik Béla Kun, Hoover allowed food that had already been purchased to be taken into the country, although the practice ceased after he received explicit directions from Paris not to allow it. By mid-1919, after Kun had ordered hundreds of political executions, Hoover's concern for feeding Hungary had ceased, and he welcomed the government's overthrow by radical trade unions. To him anything was preferable to an Allied invasion of these troubled lands. Hoover's insistence on feeding starving Germans received sharp criticism from the Allies. While he gave some preference to feeding the war-torn nations that had fought with the Allies, he bent the will of Versailles statesmen who would have allowed Germans to starve.

A subsequent episode in Hoover's relief efforts came in Soviet Russia during the great famine of 19211923. When the Soviets guaranteed freedom of movement to the ARA, shipments began in huge quantity. When a shrill anti-Communist complained at a public meeting about what Hoover was doing, he replied, "Twenty million people are starving. Whatever their politics, they shall be fed." George Kennan later observed that the ARA "importantly aided" the revolutionary government, "not just in its economic undertakings, but in its political prestige and capacity for survival."

Secretary of Commerce

Frequently mentioned as a presidential candidate for either of the major political parties in 1920, Hoover showed a qualified interest in the possibility. He had been a loyal Wilsonian, at least publicly, ardently championing the League of Nations. As vice chairman of the Second Industrial Conference (19191920), he had advanced the cause of collective bargaining for labor. He also denounced elements of the Red Scare. He announced that he was a Republican the same month. After Harding easily swept the election in a public repudiation of Wilson, the new president appointed Hoover to be secretary of commerce.

Hoover brought representatives of industry to Washington conferences to exchange information in order to improve efficiency and standardization. The representatives would agree on a "sense of the meeting" and return home to propagandize for their recommendations. The impetus the trade association movement received from Hoover's office was only temporarily dampened by Justice Department efforts to prevent price-fixing. When progressives protested that he was not using his office to promote business reform, he replied that the Commerce Department was not the appropriate agency. But Hoover had an important part in ending the twelve-hour day in the steel industry and winning the Jacksonville Agreement, which brought temporary labor peace to many of the soft-coal fields. Regulation of radio and the air-waves and the airplane industry also began under Hoover's Commerce Department.

Hoover increased fourfold the personnel of the Bureau of Foreign and Domestic Commerce, to promote a free-flowing international trade. The bureau increased United States business by hundreds of millions of dollars a year. Hoover particularly wanted commercial expansion to replace military adventurism, especially in Latin America. He took it as a matter of faith that an increased American commercial role abroad would bring a higher standard of living both to the United States and to the rest of the world. Through noncoercive means, he strove to divert American loans away from the support of armaments and risky investments.

That commitment to the spread of commerce as a means to a world free of war says a great deal about the mentality of Hoover: his trust in the rational, orderly mind and processes of modern industry and trade, his search for a workable combination of private economic activity and governmental planning, and his Quaker-like vision of an industrious, peaceful world. It must have seemed, in the sunny year when the former secretary of commerce assumed the presidency, that the planet was ready to be nudged into that future.

In the 1928 campaign, Hoover took a moderate course on the issue of Prohibition, promising a national commission on law observance to study what he cautiously termed "a great social and economic experiment noble in motive and far-reaching in purpose." Hoover respected the attempt at reform because it showed that "property rights did not dominate American ideals." But he also came to accept the belief that Prohibition had failed after being given an "honest trial." As president, he worked to enforce it, within the limits of law, because it was his duty to do so under the Constitution. Yet the report of his commission, which contained only one Prohibitionist, was evasive if not confused. Seven of its eleven members favored revision, but the report also called for a further trial at enforcement. "The findings are wet and the recommendations are dry," the despairing president complained to his secretary of state. Hoover remained the captive of the Prohibitionists through the 1932 campaign, and Roosevelt was the beneficiary of growing sentiments for repeal. The presidency would provide a test of Hoover's Quaker background and prowess as a social engineer.

Domestic Issues

As president, Hoover had a far from perfect record on civil liberties, yet in response to Jane Addams' complaints in 1929 that the government held political prisoners from the Red Scare of 1919, he could investigate and reply that all such prisoners had been released years before, during Harding's administration. He also pleased Addamswho voted for him in both 1928 and 1932by ordering that a passport be granted the executive secretary of her organization, the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, with the word defend omitted from the oath of allegiance. Hoover asked Attorney General William D. Mitchell to look into the case of the labor martyr, Thomas J. Mooney of California, to see whether his rights had been violated. The president also secured the resignation of Assistant Attorney General Mabel Walker Willebrandt, the flamboyant Prohibitionist whose methods included espionage. Secretary of Labor William Doak had deported aliens to totalitarian countries; years later Hoover would protest to Attorney General Mitchell, "I cannot imagine our Administration violating the very spirit of the Bill of Rights." Unaccountably, he did not protest at the time.

Hoover as secretary of commerce had taken some steps toward desegregating the department after the southern policies of the Wilson years. As chief executive, Hoover acquitted himself quite well on matters of race in contrast to other early-twentieth-century presidents. Like Theodore Roosevelt, Hoover invited a prominent black, Robert Moton of the Tuskegee Institute, to public ceremonies at the White House. Hoover preferred representatives of the Tuskegee philosophy to the less tractable W. E. B. Du Bois of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. The wife of a black congressman, Mrs. Oscar de Priest of Chicago, came to a congressional tea, albeit with a carefully pruned guest list that included three cabinet members' wives. Addams' Women's International League for Peace and Freedom formally congratulated Mrs. Hoover on the occasion. Congressman de Priest later ostentatiously used the incident to bait racists. The first sentence Hoover commuted under his presidential pardoning power was that of a black convicted of murdering a white woman. No eyewitness to the crime had appeared, and the verdict had depended on what seemed to be a forced confession.

Hoover sharply increased appropriations for Howard University. He was also sensitive to the need for appointing blacks to government management and to boards such as those guiding federal paroles. The president proposed to foundations that they give tenants and sharecroppers of both races the opportunity to buy the land they worked.

On the subject of lynching, Hoover suggested to an assistant, "With the modern expedition, through aerial and motor forces of Federal troops located at all important centers throughout the country it is possible to bring them almost instantly to the assistance of local authorities if a system were authorized by Congress that would make such action swift and possible." Advised by Mitchell that constitutional restraints prevented the use of federal troops without a request from state government, the president condemned lynching publicly but offered no legislation against it. Evidently he relied on the force of an enlightened public opinion.

Yet under Hoover the Republicans ousted blacks from the party in the South, and Secretary of War Patrick Hurley segregated black gold-star mothers and widows of the World War I dead en route to Europe on ocean liners. Hoover also failed to accomplish much to end discrimination in hiring for government projects.

Hoover's work in prison reform, a field long of interest to Quakers, led to the passage of eight bills. Under the direction of his appointee Sanford Bates, the Bureau of Prisons alleviated prison overcrowding by establishing work camps and building new penitentiaries and reformatories. A federal school for prison guards was founded, and all prison employees came under the Civil Service Administration. Educational opportunities and health benefits were improved, and the number of prisoners on parole multiplied during the Hoover administration.

Again spurred by his Quaker heritage, Hoover sought the reform of Indian policy. He made good appointments when he chose Charles J. Rhoads and J. Henry Scattergood, Philadelphia Quakers, to run the Indian Bureau (now the Bureau of Indian Affairs). Rhoads was appalled by the corruption and insensitivity he found in Washington, but his administration was a transitional one and at odds with itself in many respects. The debate about reform centered on the degree to which Indians should be encouraged to retain their distinct cultural, social, economic, and religious identity. Although the Hoover administration opposed government welfare that "coddled" Indians, expenditures by the bureau almost doubled under Rhoads. The money went chiefly for better schools and health care. John Collier, the New Deal head of the bureau, later acknowledged that the "real shift" toward recognition of Indian rights began under Hoover.

In fulfillment of a campaign pledge, President Hoover, after a special session of Congress in the spring of 1929, signed the Agricultural Marketing Act, which included a $500 million revolving fund to buy surpluses that might be resold in better economic times. The Federal Farm Board speculated in agricultural commodities to hold up farm prices, but to no avail. Farm prices plunged soon after the stock market crash of October 1929, and the board became merely a relief agency. With farmers unwilling voluntarily to reduce crop acreage and the government unwilling to coerce them to do so, the board's funds simply ran out before the Great Depression reached bottom in 19321933.

Hoover had made an impressive record while commerce secretary by persuading states through which the Colorado River flowed to agree on a plan to harness its electrical energy, control its flood potential, and distribute its waters fairly. Hoover (formerly Boulder) Dam is a monument to this work. During his presidency Hoover finally managed to negotiate a treaty with Canada for the development of a St. Lawrence waterway. Other projectsthe San Francisco Bay Bridge, the Los Angeles Aqueduct, and various public worksalso marked his tenure.

The conservation movement advanced under Hoover. Some 2 million additional acres of forest-land became national preserves, and the area of national parks increased by 40 percent. But some of the recommendations of Hoover's Commission on the Conservation and Administration of the Public Domain had an ambiguous character. It suggested, for example, that the surface rights to lands useful only for grazing should be returned to the states. Hoover liked the notion of shrinking federal controls and had a naïve idea of state conservation goals. He made plans for building Grand Coulee Dam on the Columbia River but vetoed a proposal by Senator George Norris of Nebraska to develop the Tennessee River valley, objecting to its socialist character and labeling it "degeneration."

Hoover's appointments to the Supreme Court reflected a liberal rather than conservative bias. Charles Evans Hughes, appointed chief justice in 1930, was a judicial moderate who would side with the liberals on most of the critical decisions on New Deal legislation in the 1930s. Justice Owen Roberts was to become known in the 1930s as the "swing vote" on the Court. Hoover's final appointment was perhaps his best. Benjamin Cardozo, known for his integrity and his intellect, had aligned himself with the liberal constitutional philosophy of Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. Louis D. Brandeiswho, like Cardozo, was Jewishwas sitting on the Court, and antiSemites protested the nomination of a second Jew. The famous progressive journalist and Prohibitionist William Allen White wrote to Senator George Norris, I have not had a good drink since I left Kansas City to come to Emporia [Kansas] nearly 40 years ago.. . . Hunt up . . . a good long brown drink of nose-choking, hair-raising, gullet-giggling, hard corn liquor and then and there . . . take one happy untrammeled drink for me in celebration of Justice Cardozo."

Economic Collapse

Hoover had long criticized speculation on the stock market. He had repeatedly asked President Coolidge to seek additional control over private banking and financial practices, especially insider trading and the use of common stocks as security at near-market value for customers' deposits. He also urged Federal Reserve Board members to restrict credit sufficiently to deter speculation. The board pursued confused objectives and showed faulty logic, dropping the re-discount rate, to Hoover's horror, to 3.5 percent in August 1927. There was little that Hoover could do to restrain stock speculation when he entered office in March 1929. He wrote a statement for a reluctant Secretary of the Treasury Andrew Mellon to issue, saying that conservative bonds, in contrast to speculative stocks, were undervalued. Fearing that an assault on the speculative market could start a panic, he was cautious about recommending a rise in the rediscount rate in that year. But probably nothing Hoover could have done would have averted the stock market crash of October 1929.

There were few historical parallels for Hoover to draw on. By late-twentieth-century standards, Hoover reacted slowly to the crisis; by earlier guides he was a remarkable activist. His initial response was to persuade management to maintain wages and to urge a pooling of resources on the part of financial interests to prevent further deflation. Groups of industry and labor representatives came to Washington at the president's invitation, and both took action to try to avert serious trouble, but to no avail. Hoover and the American Economic Association both anticipated a healthy deflation to be followed soon by a business revival. When the depression reached worldwide dimensions toward the end of 1930, Hoover failed to respond freshly to the crisis. He relied principally on increased public works and a balanced budgettimid answers to what by 1931 was obviously a disaster.

Hoover promised in February 1931 that if hunger and suffering could not otherwise be prevented, "I will ask the aid of every resource of the Federal government." But he came only reluctantly to support federal relief. Establishment economic thinking was wary of relief as being unproductive, and Hoover feared that it would bring hordes of subsidy seekers. But he had other reasons for his hesitancy to provide extensive federal relief, and they were of a different sort from those that much historical scholarship has attributed to a cold and reactionary Hoover. In the years before his presidency, Hoover had spent considerable energies in some of the most extensive humanitarian relief in history. Then, acting out of his Quaker faith and upbringing, he had looked to voluntary, rational acts of compassion and social reformation on the part of the spiritually enlightened. Hoover, it seems, believed that in times of crisis, citizens would take this kind of initiative. It was, then, not only the will of the recipients of relief that would sufferand Hoover was not given to the right-wing notion that the poor have themselves to blamebut the will of the property holders, who were supposed to behave as Hoover and his volunteers had behaved in days of famine abroad.

Hoover's trust in the generosity and initiative of his fellow citizens was naive, and had he not finally come around to provide some federal aid and then been replaced by the New Deal, it might have proved disastrously naive. But the sharing that he wanted from the citizenry was not so very far from what the democratic left envisions within a workers' democracy. In the years since, when the values of privacy came to be extolled above the virtues of public citizenship, Hoover's belief in the reality of cooperativeness had evidently become only a poignant memory.

It is not inconceivable that Hoover's hesitancy in the face of the depression represented the drag of the past upon the politics of the moment and the sluggishness of prevalent institutions in their first encounter with economic collapse. Hoover had been sympathetic toward the progressive movement, and a vigorous response to the crisis would have been wholly in character for a statesman who in relief work and government service had been so much the activist and innovator. Yet Hoover's failure to launch something like the New Deal was also in character, consistent with his liking for volunteerism and his foolish trust in the business economy with which he had been so intimately and so successfully connected. He knew the productive power of modern industry, its capacity to subdue poverty with goods and jobs; and he knew that cooperative ventures like the CRB and the Red Cross could put the resources of the economy to great public use. His knowledge was also his handicap. He had seen and organized so much that was good that he could not see, or admit to himself, how much a part of the nature of the market economy it was to withhold from one family or region the wealth that it poured into the lap of another. Hoover's inability to recognize this meant that one of the best and most generous administrative minds of the day went stumbling through the presidency and then kept spinning round in a fevered defense of that presidency and of the existing capitalist system while it might have been working toward some new economic order, perhaps an order more radical in its reforms than the New Deal itself.

Late in 1931, after an unsuccessful attempt to persuade private business interests to form an effective credit association, Hoover endorsed the creation of the Reconstruction Finance Corporation (RFC), which passed Congress in January 1932. Based on the War Finance Corporation of World War I, the RFC would lend to banks, corporations, and agricultural groups. A bias in its initial loans led to the charge that the Republicans favored a trickle-down effect by which the unemployed would benefit only when large business organizations could function normally. To a great extent the charge was accurate, but widely accepted historical accounts have failed to recognize that Hoover ultimately saw the necessity of providing federal funds for relief and used the subterfuge of the RFC to lend funds to the states for relief purposes. Hunger marches, beginning in December 1931 and culminating in the famous Bonus Army the next summer, dramatized the urgency of the need. Much farm surplus was released to the unemployed, and early in 1932, Hoover recommended $300 million in RFC loans to the states for relief. A law Hoover finally signed in mid-1932 reversed the government's course on relief. The concept of loans virtually disappeared. Funds would be advanced out of federal aid for highway construction due in 1935, and the states were to repay them later.

The President's Emergency Committee on Employment (PECE) was set up in the fall of 1930 when unemployment had reached about 11 percent. Under the direction of Colonel Arthur Woods, who had played an important role in Hoover's 1921 Conference on Unemployment, PECE strove to generate private charity and prevailed on Hoover and Congress to increase public works spending. But Woods was battling a tidal wave. In August 1931, PECE gave way to the President's Organization on Unemployment Relief (POUR), headed by Walter S. Gifford, president of American Telephone and Telegraph. Some work on expanding, coordinating, and improving relief efforts was accomplished, but unemployment increased still more. Hoover, earlier that year, had signed the Wagner-Graham Stabilization Act, which set up the Federal Stabilization Board to initiate public works. Public works did increase throughout the decade after 1929, but the massive scale needed to cure unemployment never materialized. And in 1931 the mood in Congress remained strongly opposed to federal relief; even the National Council of Social Workers refused to endorse the principle at their convention in May. By this time, shacks derisively called Hoovervilles were rising in the nation's largest cities; New York's Riverside Park was full of them.

In 1932, Hoover continued to adhere, at least publicly, to the economic orthodoxy of a balanced budget. So did Congress, where a national sales tax almost passed under sponsorship from the leadership of both parties. Hoover expressed more progressive sentiments in a memo to Congressman Charles Crisp, arguing for higher excise taxes on luxuries and higher income taxes on the wealthy. Later Hoover said that high estate taxes were essential. The Revenue Act of 1932 embodied most of these ideas.

Foreign Relations

The bad economy was to dominate Hoover's foreign policy. After a postelection goodwill tour to Latin America, Hoover had pursued the enlightened policy there that had originated under Coolidge. Much of the good effect was dissipated by the Smoot-Hawley Tariff of 1930, which raised barriers against foreign imports.

By 1931 the countries of Europe had been badly infected by the virus of worldwide depression. They blamed the American tariff, but it played a comparatively minor role in economic disruptions that were traceable back to the Treaty of Versailles. Congress and the American public believed that the war debts owed to the United States by Europe should be paid, but Europe could not pay. Hoover instituted in 1931 an eighteen-month moratorium on the debts, but even then European countries defaulted. The largest bank in Austria had failed, and Britain soon abandoned the gold standard. Hoover wasted his energies on trying to maintain, with the aid of France, an international gold standard. The depression grew worse.

Always influenced by Quaker pacifism, Hoover advocated international disarmament. The London Naval Disarmament Conference of 1930 attempted to extend the work of the Washington Naval Conference of 19211922, which had effectively stabilized the balance of arms in the Pacific. The London conference accomplished some further postponement of the arms race but, along with the Geneva World Disarmament Conference of 1932, was notably ineffective against Japanese imperialism, evidenced by Japan's invasion of Manchuria in September 1931.

Hoover and Secretary of State Henry Stimson differed on the proper American response to Japanese militarism. Hoover counseled patience, arguing from his experience that the dominant Chinese culture would ultimately either assimilate or expel the invaders. Stimson was more bellicose and considered supporting world sanctions through the League of Nations. Together they promulgated the Hoover-Stimson Doctrine of January 1932, announcing the American refusal to recognize any arrangement contrary to the Open Door policy. This, the president hoped, would cast "the searchlight of public opinion" on Japan.

Bonus Army March on Washington

Almost nothing that occurred in Hoover's final year in the White House went well for him. The worst event from a political standpoint was the march of the Bonus Army in 1932. About fifteen thousand World War I veterans descended on Washington, D.C., in May to demand early payment of a soldiers' bonus not scheduled for distribution until 1945. The veterans, peaceable protesters except for a tiny minority, settled in abandoned buildings and in tents on the Anacostia Flats. They marched in front of the Capitol and the White House, and when the Senate voted against the bonus in June by 62 to 18, most of the veterans went home at federal expense, but about ten thousand stayed.

When the Senate voted as it did, following the advice of liberals such as Senator Norris of Nebraska and Congressman Fiorello La Guardia and Governor Franklin Roosevelt of New York, many members of Congress avoided confronting the veterans by escaping through subterranean chambers of the Capitol. Until late July, Hoover did nothing except to provide some sanitary facilities, clothing, cots, tents, and food. On 28 July some veterans were evicted from a small downtown area of government buildings. The buildings had been scheduled for demolition to make way for public works projects providing jobs for the unemployed. When a riot ensued in which a veteran died, the District of Columbia commissioners asked for help from the United States Army. General Douglas MacArthur readily obliged.

Hoover gave MacArthur specific orders to remove the veterans from the heart of the district; troops did so, wielding drawn sabers and carrying tear-gas canisters. But in direct contravention of Hoover's orders, the imperious MacArthur drove the veterans from their pitiful camp at Anacostia Flats into the Maryland countryside. No event staged for the benefit of public opinion could have seemed more cruel. Hoover reprimanded his chief of staff privately, but fearing public instability should the insubordination become known, the president took the blame. Subsequently, both men became enamored of the idea that Communists and criminals had been gaining considerable strength among the remnant of the veterans. The incident marked a turn to the political right on the part of the president and was his final political failure.

When Franklin Roosevelt, the Democratic presidential candidate, heard about the rout of the veterans, he grinned and said to his adviser, Felix Frankfurter, "Well, Felix, this will elect me." But the New Yorker, not yet widely perceived as the easy winner, left nothing to chance. He campaigned tirelessly. Yet the content of his speeches differed only modestly from the president's own views. The contrast between them, at least in 1932, was more personal than political. Roosevelt could instill a sense of security and self-confidence in the nation, qualities that came with inherited wealth. Hoover, the successful self-made engineer, was testimony to the good working order of capitalism in good times but an embarrassment in the depression. Hard times mocked everything Hoover had worked for. And he lacked the kind of deep-rooted conservatism that would allow Roosevelt as president to unite diverse factions and to sense and strengthen a community's innate equilibrium.

Election of 1932 and Postpresidential Years

By 1932 it seemed that Hoover had gone as far as he would in tampering with the economy. His dreary speeches were an unrelieved defense of his record, and he blamed Congress for holding up certain legislation, such as a national system of home loan banks to avoid foreclosures. On 31 October in Madison Square Garden in New York City he launched into a tirade: with no tariff, he warned, "the grass will grow in streets of a hundred cities, a thousand towns; the weeds will overrun the fields of millions of farms . . . their churches and schoolhouses will decay." Secretary of Agriculture Arthur Hyde unleashed a still more blatant appeal to fear: "If Roosevelt is elected the homes and lives of one hundred million American people might be in jeopardy."

The economy was in fact showing some improvement in the summer and early fall of 1932. Stock prices advanced sharply, bank failures declined, and Hoover would always claim that Roosevelt's election aborted a recovery that was under way. Roosevelt's victory was by 22,810,000 to 15,759,000. By refusing to cooperate with Hoover during the interregnum, the New Yorker, according to Republicans, was threatening to end recovery.

After the election the banking system slumped toward collapse. Nevada's banks closed for six weeks, beginning on 31 October. Unemployment increased to more than 20 percent of the labor force. Many farmers lost their land. In the long interregnum Hoover tried to persuade Roosevelt to join him in advocating a balanced budget, changing the laws on banking, and staying on the gold standard. The president-elect refrained from committing himself. When the two men met at the White House on 22 November, they were superficially friendly. But Hoover thought Roosevelt intellectually incapable of understanding the complexities of international finance.

Late in January a rash of major bank closings filled the country with alarm. In Michigan, banks closed for eight days in mid-February. Panic came at the end of the month when banks lost $73 million in deposits. Hoover unsuccessfully tried to get Roosevelt to promise to guarantee certain bank deposits, but the incoming president refused to participate in any joint solution. The emergency bank holiday and banking legislation of Roosevelt's Hundred Days had been drafted in general terms by Hoover and his staff. On inauguration day, Saturday, 4 March, the wind blew gusts of rain yet a ray of sunlight broke into the weather. The nation could not help but identify the gray bleakness with Hoover and the sunlight with Franklin Roosevelt.

Hoover lived for three decades after leaving office. From his suite in New York's Waldorf Towers he preached isolationism, Republicanism, conservatism, and philanthropy. He saw a threat of Fascism and Communism in the New Deal but approved of many of its specific laws. In 1945 he spoke in revulsion against the use of the atomic bomb: "The only difference between this and the use of poison gas is the fear of retaliation." He returned to public life in the late 1940s, serving for President Truman on a fact-finding international relief trip and then as chairman of the Commission on Organization of the Executive Branch of the Government (the Hoover Commission). Many of his recommendations on saving money were adopted. He chaired a similar commission under President Eisenhower, but with fewer positive results. Hoover died, at the age of ninety, on 20 October 1964.


Biographies include David Burner, Herbert Hoover: A Public Life (New York, 1979); Joan Hoff Wilson, Herbert Hoover: Forgotten Progressive (Boston, 1975); Martin L. Fausold, The Presidency of Herbert C. Hoover (Lawrence, Kans., 1985); Wilton Eckley, Herbert Hoover (Boston, 1980); and Richard Norton Smith, An Uncommon Man: The Triumph of Herbert Hoover (New York, 1984). All of these books are being gradually supplanted, at least in matters of detail, by George H. Nash's multivolume life. So far two volumes by Nash have appeared under the main title The Life of Herbert Hoover: vol. 1, The Engineer (New York, 1983), and vol. 2, The Humanitarian, 19141917 (New York, 1988).

See the following two books by Ellis W. Hawley, the most influential scholar of Hoover studies: Herbert Hoover as Secretary of Commerce: Studies in New Era Thought and Practice (Iowa City, Iowa, 1981) and Herbert Hoover and the Historians (West Branch, Iowa, 1989). Hawley has also edited Herbert Hoover: Containing the Public Messages, Speeches, and Statements of the President, 4 vols. (Washington, D.C., 19741977). There are three bibliographies about Hoover: Patrick G. O'Brien, comp., Herbert Hoover: A Bibliography (Westport, Conn., 1993); Richard D. Burns, comp., Herbert Hoover: A Bibliography of His Times and Presidency (Wilmington, Del., 1991); and Kathleen Tracey, comp., Herbert Hoover, a Bibliography: His Writings and Addresses (Stanford, Calif., 1977).

Other important monographs include Donald J. Lisio, The President and Protest: Hoover, MacArthur, and the Bonus Riot, 2d ed. (New York, 1994), and his Hoover, Blacks, and Lily-whites: A Study of Southern Strategies (Chapel Hill, N.C., 1985); James S. Olson, Herbert Hoover and the Reconstruction Finance Corporation, 19311933 (Ames, Iowa, 1977), and his Saving Capitalism: The Reconstruction Finance Corporation and the New Deal, 19331940 (Princeton, N.J., 1988); Gary Dean Best, The Politics of American Individualism: Herbert Hoover in Transition, 19181921 (Westport, Conn., 1975), and his Herbert Hoover: The Postpresidential Years, 19331964 (Stanford, Calif., 1983); Albert U. Romasco, The Poverty of Abundance: Hoover, the Nation, the Depression (New York, 1965); Craig Lloyd, Aggressive Introvert: A Study of Herbert Hoover and Public Relations Management, 19121932 (Columbus, Ohio, 1972); James D. Calder, The Origins and Development of Federal Crime Control Policy: Herbert Hoover's Initiatives (Westport, Conn., 1993); George H. Nash, Herbert Hoover and Stanford University (Stanford, Calif., 1988); and Allan J. Lichtman, Prejudice and the Old Politics: The Presidential Election of 1928 (Chapel Hill, N.C., 1979).

Important collections of essays include Lawrence E. Gelfand, ed., Herbert Hoover: The Great War and Its Aftermath, 19141923 (Iowa City, Iowa, 1979); Lee Nash, ed., Understanding Herbert Hoover: Ten Perspectives (Stanford, Calif., 1987); and Martin L. Fausold and George T. Mazuzan, eds., The Hoover Presidency: A Reappraisal (Albany, N.Y., 1974).

Recent works include Louis W. Liebovich, Bylines in Despair: Herbert Hoover, the Great Depression, and the U.S. News Media (Westport, Conn., 1994).

Hoover, Herbert

views updated May 18 2018


Herbert Clark Hoover (August 10, 1874–October 20, 1964) was an engineer, financier, humanitarian, public servant, president of the United States, and elder statesman. Born in West Branch, Iowa, he was the second of three children of Jesse Clark Hoover, a blacksmith, inventor, and seller of farm implements, and his wife, Huldah Minthorn, a minister of the Society of Friends. Both parents died before "Bertie" was ten. He spent his adolescence in Oregon in the household of his maternal uncle and attended the Quaker academy his uncle superintended before going to work as an office boy in his uncle's land development office.

At age seventeen, Hoover became the youngest member of the "pioneer class" of Leland Stanford Junior University in Palo Alto, California. He studied geology, engaged in campus politics as an antifraternity "barbarian," was elected treasurer, introduced fiscal responsibility in the football program, and met his future wife, Lou Henry, a fellow Iowan. He graduated in May 1895, not yet twenty-one years old. Always a loyal alumnus and generous contributor, in 1912 Hoover began half a century of service on Stanford's board of trustees. His benefactions included the Stanford Union, the Food Research Institute, and the Graduate School of Business. In 1919, he founded at Stanford the Hoover Institution on War, Revolution, and Peace, a vast archive of records relating to political events of the early and mid-twentieth century.

Hoover worked briefly as a common miner before joining a prestigious San Francisco engineering firm. In 1897, Bewick, Moreing and Company of London hired him as an "inspecting engineer" to find and develop new properties in Australia, the most spectacular of which was the Sons of Gwalia mine. Success led to an assignment to China as technical consultant to the director-general of mines in Chihli province, at a substantial increase in salary. En route, Hoover stopped in Monterey, California, to marry Lou Henry. In Tientsin, they came under fire during the Boxer Rebellion. Again, success earned promotion, a partnership in Bewick, Moreing, which lasted until he established his own firm in 1908. As an engineer and financier, Hoover became known as the "doctor of sick mines," traveling around the world five times with his wife and two sons. In addition, Hoover and his wife collaborated in the translation of a sixteenth-century Latin mining text, De Re Metallica, by Georg Bauer (known as Agricola). Hoover also published extensively in mining journals and lectured at the Columbia School of Mines. By 1914, he had made a considerable fortune and was looking for a way to enter public life, perhaps as the publisher of an American newspaper.


When war broke out in Europe in August 1914, both Hoovers aided the repatriation of stranded Americans. Herbert Hoover next established the Commission for Relief in Belgium, which provided millions of tons of food to starving people in Belgium and France from 1914 until the American declaration of war in 1917. Hoover then returned to the United States as food administrator in the Wilson administration. Orchestrating a massive but decentralized campaign for voluntary cooperation in food conservation to support the war effort, Hoover became a master of public relations as well as a valued member of Wilson's war cabinet. At the end of the war, he resumed international food relief with the American Relief Administration, which combined humanitarian aid with major contributions to the economic reconstruction of Europe.


Although briefly considered by both parties as a presidential nominee in 1920, Hoover became secretary of commerce in the cabinet of Warren G. Harding, remaining in that post through most of the administration of Calvin Coolidge as well.

Hoover energetically reorganized and expanded the Department of Commerce from a minor agency into a complex organization with farsweeping domestic and international influence. Major divisions dealt with industry, trade, and transportation. A new bureau collected and distributed statistics, consistent with Hoover's belief that business efficiency depended on accurate and shared information. The Bureau of Standards encouraged systematization of industrial technology. Appropriations for the Bureau of Foreign and Domestic Commerce increased by nearly half, its branch offices at home and abroad doubled, and personnel grew five-fold. The workforce was racially desegregated. New divisions supervised aviation, radio, and housing.

With an engineer's concern for efficiency and a progressive's dedication to community responsibility, Hoover advocated a form of capitalism based on associationalism and cooperation. Believing that waste, selfishness, and destructive competition led to inefficiency and unemployment, he sought to make government a servant of self-regulating economic units. He favored diversification of stock ownership, attacked the twelve-hour workday in the steel industry, and encouraged trade associations and individual firms to standardize products and processes to eliminate waste. The Department of Commerce undertook massive educational campaigns to convince business leaders and the public to embrace fact-based planning, voluntary cooperation, and community responsibility. More than two hundred conferences addressed topics ranging from unemployment to highway safety, housing, conservation, and child health. Experts highlighted conditions, disseminated information, and rallied public support for already-developed solutions.

In 1927 when the Mississippi River flooded a 20,000 square mile area, leaving 600,000 people homeless, Hoover took personal charge, mobilizing local and state resources, the Red Cross, the Army Corps of Engineers, the Coast Guard, and countless volunteers to evacuate, shelter, and feed flood victims; to provide sanitation and combat epidemics; and to finance low-cost rehabilitation loans. In another example of federal, local, and private partnership, he negotiated an interstate agreement for access to the waters of the Colorado River and federal construction of a dam in Boulder Canyon that would provide hydroelectric power to municipal and private distributors. He advocated a network of waterways that eventually became the Saint Lawrence Seaway.

Hoover articulated his philosophy of "American Individualism" in a small book published in 1922. A unique combination of individual enterprise and community obligation, it called for education, competition, individual liberties, and "voluntary organizational cooperation for the common good."


When Calvin Coolidge did not "choose to run" for another term as president in 1928, Hoover rode "Republican prosperity" to an easy victory over Alfred E. Smith, who also suffered the political liabilities of being a Roman Catholic and an opponent of prohibition. The president-elect then made a "good neighbor" tour of eleven Latin American countries.

Hoover hoped for a presidency in which American individualism, associationalism, expertise, and technology would bring greater rationality, efficiency, humanity, and more widespread prosperity to the American people. As he had during his years as secretary of commerce, he recruited experts and commissioned extensive research, expecting that their data and analysis would form the basis for enlightened public policy. The White House Conference on Child Health and Protection produced a nineteen-point Children's Charter as well as a 35-volume report that influenced social workers for many years and inspired much local legislation. Ironically, a major set of findings, published in 1933 as Recent Social Trends documented the extraordinary modernization of the United States at precisely the time when public belief in the "American dream" was at its lowest.

Events forced Hoover's administration to focus primarily on the domestic economy rather than foreign affairs. He welcomed the London Treaty of 1930, which reduced all categories of naval armaments, but he failed to obtain abolition of offensive weapons, such as bombers and chemical warfare, by participants at the World Disarmament Conference in Geneva in 1932. In Latin America, he renounced dollar diplomacy, repudiated the Roosevelt Corollary, removed the Marines from their twenty-year occupation of Nicaragua, and prepared for withdrawal of U.S. troops from Haiti. When Japan invaded China, Hoover's belief in voluntary international cooperation, collective persuasion, and moral force led him to insist on a doctrine of nonrecognition of territorial acquisitions obtained by force in violation of treaty rights.

As one of the few who had recognized economic imbalances and warned about a runaway stock market in the 1920s, Hoover anticipated that he would have to oversee remedies and corrections. To combat the long-standing agricultural depression, the Federal Farm Board encouraged creation of farmers' organizations to withhold surpluses until prices became more favorable. The stock market crash of 1929 revealed serious structural weaknesses in the domestic and international economies. Depressed farm incomes, values, and purchasing power led to failures of country banks that gradually expanded to undermine larger financial institutions. Sales declined; manufacturers stockpiled inventories of durable goods. Overproduction in industries like automobiles had an impact on collateral production, such as steel. Building stagnated. European financial dependence on the United States required an increase in exports or a decrease in debt, but the Hawley-Smoot tariff proved an insurmountable obstacle.

Hoover struggled to persuade industrial, labor, agricultural, utility, and financial leaders to maintain wages, hence purchasing power, and plan for renewed business progress. Believing that the nation suffered from a crisis in confidence, he worked tirelessly to restore faith in the spiritual and economic strength of the country. He appealed to the traditions of voluntary cooperation, private charity, and community responsibility to combat human suffering and launched an anti-hoarding campaign to encourage Americans to spend their way out of the Depression. His efforts failed. Employers furloughed first a few and then more workers. Bankers refused to risk loans without full collateral. Relief needs outstripped the resources of private and local relief agencies. And frightened Americans hid cash they might soon need if conditions worsened. Hoover's own optimistic statements rang hollow in the face of mounting unemployment. A devastating drought in the summer of 1930 accelerated farm problems and rural bank closings. Hoover resisted demands for direct federal relief because he feared undermining the character of independent, self-reliant Americans. He hoped that construction of public works that would eventually pay for themselves would provide employment until the economy revived. He left direct relief to local and state governments, but their resources proved insufficient to stem the tide of economic decline and human suffering.

Hoover traced the origins of America's Depression to Europe. American loans, German reparations, and Allied war debts formed a vicious cycle. Federal Reserve manipulation of credit to aid European countries had created too-easy money in the United States during the 1920s. And, beginning in 1931, a series of European financial debacles marched inexorably toward the United States. French withdrawals from Central European banks brought them to the verge of collapse. Hoover countered with a one-year moratorium on inter-governmental debts and reparations to provide a respite for retrenchment. That September, however, Britain was forced to abandon the gold standard, and the gold drain shifted to New York. The Glass-Steagall Act of 1932 shored up American currency, but bank failures escalated.

At this point, Hoover substantially modified his resistance to federal government intervention. To stem the tide of bank failures, he first encouraged private bankers to form the National Credit Corporation to make loans to industrial concerns and banks. When their efforts proved perfunctory and problems increased, he proposed the Reconstruction Finance Corporation (RFC), primarily funded by the Treasury, for the same purposes. RFC loans significantly reduced the number of bank failures in 1932. He would soon support RFC financing of public works and loans to states for direct relief.

But Hoover labored under serious political handicaps. He had never run for public office before winning the presidency. His previous experiences with public persuasion had been fueled by wartime patriotism or 1920s optimism. During his presidency, however, even when the Republicans controlled both houses of Congress in the first two years, he proved too progressive for the conservatives and too conservative for the progressives. The 1930 interim election brought about a Democratic-controlled House of Representatives, where presidential hopeful John Nance Garner presided as speaker. Garner obstructed the Hoover administration whenever possible, most particularly by delaying passage of the Relief and Reconstruction Act until July 1932. Although Hoover's analysts claimed that the Depression was coming to an end that summer, it would take six months for the impact to "trickle down" to the ordinary citizen. The presidential election was four months away.

By summer 1932, in an effort to boost prices, farmers were using roadblocks to prevent delivery of milk and livestock to markets. Cities such as Detroit saw hunger marches and demonstrations demanding half-wages for those laid off. The destitute lived in tarpaper shacks in "Hoovervilles" and existed on handouts or scraps from garbage cans. Veterans journeyed to Washington to demand early payment of a war service bonus but were routed by the army commanded by General Douglas MacArthur. Hoover received the blame. Meanwhile, Democratic Party publicist Charles Michaelson orchestrated a highly effective smear campaign against Hoover. The 1932 election was less a victory for Franklin D. Roosevelt than a resounding defeat for Hoover.

The lame-duck administration remained in office for nearly four months, an interregnum that was nearly as calamitous as that in 1860 to 1861. Hoover tried to tie his successor to his repudiated policies. Roosevelt avoided that contamination, while appearing ignorant of economics and the international situation. European countries defaulted on their World War I debts in December. Publication of RFC loans, at the initiative of Speaker and Vice President-elect Garner, precipitated new and disastrous runs on the banks in January. Revelations before the Senate Banking and Currency Committee in February uncovered gross improprieties by major banks and bankers during the 1920s that further undermined public morale. Roosevelt first ignored and then rejected Hoover's proposal of a joint statement to bolster public confidence. On March 3, 1933, the eve of the inauguration, even the biggest New York and Chicago banks were in peril. Despite pleas from the Federal Reserve Board and others, Hoover refused to act without an endorsement from Roosevelt, which the president-elect refused to give. The governors of New York and Illinois declared bank holidays, bringing to thirty-four the number of states that had closed their banks rather than face ruin. Roosevelt subsequently declared a national bank holiday and holdovers from Hoover's administration crafted the plans for reopening the banks.


After he left office on March 4, 1933, Hoover remained publicly silent for eighteen months, primarily out of concern that his criticism of the new administration's policies might be blamed for impeding economic recovery. During this time, however, he arranged for publication of collections of public papers to demonstrate the effectiveness of the policies of his presidency. In the fall of 1934, he broke his silence with the publication of The Challenge to Liberty. Originally conceived as an updated reissue of American Individualism, The Challenge reaffirmed Hoover's belief in American liberalism and expressed his alarm at the social and economic changes he perceived in "National Regimentation" in fascist regimes abroad and, by implication, in the New Deal at home. Liberty, liberalism, and the sanctity of the United States Constitution became recurring themes as Hoover spoke out during the 1930s. He became a major critic of the New Deal, arguing that it failed to bring the United States out of the Great Depression while undermining both the capitalist economic system and the independent initiative of American citizens.

Simultaneously, Hoover pursued his own re-entry into the political arena, unsuccessfully seeking the 1936 and 1940 Republican presidential nominations. Hoping to persuade Republicans to vindicate his anti-Depression activities as president and to affirm his political philosophy, he tried to persuade the party to initiate a new "interim convention" in 1938 to craft a platform for the next national contest that would shape the choice of a candidate in 1940. The party resisted transformation according to the Hoover model. Meanwhile, the Democrats established a pattern of running against Hoover in every presidential election from 1932 onwards, while Republican candidates did their best to avoid association with him.

Facing continued rejection at home, Hoover returned to Europe in 1938, his first visit since Versailles. Lauded by governments and those he had fed, he also received a first-hand education in European politics. He returned home convinced that another great war was coming and that the United States should stand aside from the conflagration. He devoted himself to that position from the out-break of war in Europe in 1939 until the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. Hoover loyally supported the declaration of war and hoped that he might be of service. Ignored again, he and his longtime associate, former ambassador Hugh Gibson, were among the many prominent persons who published plans for a framework of postwar peace.

The new war produced new human suffering, and Hoover tried to recreate his feeding activities of the 1914 to 1917 period, but he failed in the face of resistance by Roosevelt and Winston Churchill. Hoover would have to wait for Roosevelt's successor to recall him to national service. In 1946, President Harry Truman dispatched the "Great Humanitarian" on a worldwide mission to assess the needs of the hungry and the capabilities of food-producing nations to contribute to postwar relief. The following year, he went abroad again to address hunger in Germany and Austria. His reports also contributed to the mitigation of harsh postwar treatment of defeated Germany.

Truman, and his successor, Dwight Eisenhower, also drafted Hoover to address the enormous growth of federal bureaucracy resulting from the New Deal and the war. In both cases, the Commission on Organization of the Executive Branch of the Government, known as the Hoover Commission, concluded in 1949 and in 1955 with recommendations for increasing efficiency, streamlining federal bureaucracy, and rolling back New Deal encroachments. Some of its proposals, such as the creation of a Department of Defense, were enacted.

After his presidency, Hoover devoted himself to the preservation and propagation of the historical record of his public life. Virtually every speech and public statement between 1933 and 1960 was reprinted in eight volumes called Addresses upon the American Road. He published three volumes of memoirs and edited several collections of documents, ranging from The Ordeal of Woodrow Wilson about Versailles to An American Epic, a four-volume annotated collection of papers from his long career in international relief. At the end of his life, he had completed a volume tentatively entitled Freedom Betrayed, as yet unpublished, dealing with the foreign policy of the Roosevelt administration.

Hoover also devoted himself to gentler subjects. As chairman of the Boys' Clubs of America, he took particular pleasure in establishing clubs for a million of those he described as "pavement boys." He published a collection of his correspondence with children under the title On Growing Up. He wrote a slim volume of his observations on angling, called Fishing for Fun and to Wash Your Soul. He was the force behind the creation of the humanitarian organization CARE and the United Nations agency UNICEF.

Herbert Hoover—orphan boy from West Branch, self-made millionaire, public servant more than politician—personified the American dream. If his presidency was blighted by the crisis of that dream in the Great Depression, he lived long enough to be acknowledged as both an elder statesman and a world humanitarian.



Best, Gary Dean. Herbert Hoover: The Postpresidential Years, 1933–1964. 1983.

Best, Gary Dean. The Politics of American Individualism: Herbert Hoover in Transition, 1918–1921. 1975.

Burner, David. Herbert Hoover: A Public Life. 1978.

Dodge, Mark M., ed. Herbert Hoover and the Historians. 1989.

Fausold, Martin L. The Presidency of Herbert C. Hoover. 1985.

Fausold, Martin L., and George T. Mazuzan, eds. The Hoover Presidency: A Reappraisal. 1974.

Gelfand, Lawrence E., ed. Herbert Hoover: The Great War and Its Aftermath, 1914–23. 1979.

Hawley, Ellis, ed. Herbert Hoover as Secretary of Commerce: Studies in New Era Thought and Practice. 1981.

Herbert Hoover Reassessed: Essays Commemorating the Fiftieth Anniversary of the Inauguration of our Thirty-first President. 1981.

Hoover, Herbert. Addresses upon the American Road, 8 vols. 1938–1961.

Hoover, Herbert. An American Epic, 4 vols. 1959–1964.

Hoover, Herbert. American Individualism. 1922.

Hoover, Herbert. The Challenge to Liberty. 1934.

Hoover, Herbert. The Memoirs of Herbert Hoover, 3 vols. 1951–1952.

Hoover, Herbert. The Ordeal of Woodrow Wilson. 1958.

Hoover, Herbert, and Hugh Gibson. The Problems of Lasting Peace. 1942.

Hoover, Herbert, and Lou Henry Hoover, trans. De Re Metallica. 1912.

Myers, William Starr, ed. The State Papers and Other Public Writings of Herbert Hoover, 2 vols. 1934.

Myers, William Starr, and Walter H. Newton, eds. The Hoover Administration: A Documented Narrative. 1936.

Nash, George H. The Life of Herbert Hoover: The Engineer, 1874–1914. 1983.

Nash, George H. The Life of Herbert Hoover: The Humanitarian, 1914–1917. 1988.

Nash, George H. Herbert Hoover and Stanford University. 1988.

Nash, George H. The Life of Herbert Hoover: Master of Emergencies, 1917–1918. 1996.

Nash, Lee, ed. Understanding Herbert Hoover: Ten Perspectives. 1987.

Robinson, Edgar Eugene, and Vaughn Davis Bornet. Herbert Hoover: President of the United States. 1975.

Smith, Richard Norton. An Uncommon Man: The Triumph of Herbert Hoover. 1984.

Smith, Richard Norton, and Timothy Walch, eds. Farewell to the Chief: Former Presidents in American Public Life. 1990.

Thalken, Thomas T., ed. The Problems of Lasting Peace Revisited. 1986.

Wilbur, Ray Lyman, and Arthur Mastick Hyde, eds. The Hoover Policies. 1937.

Wilson, Joan Hoff. Herbert Hoover: Forgotten Progressive. 1975.

Susan Estabrook Kennedy

Hoover, Herbert

views updated Jun 27 2018

Herbert Hoover

Born August 10, 1874 (West Branch, Iowa)
Died October 20, 1964 (New York, New York)

U.S. president

"I have no fears for the future of our country. It is bright with hope."

Herbert Hoover began the Roaring Twenties as secretary of commerce under President Warren G. Harding (1865–1923; served 1921–23; see entry). By the end of the decade, he had himself been elected president. Although he was much admired by the public in the years leading up to the 1929 stock market crash, Hoover's reputation took a steep downturn as the Great Depression (the economic crisis that would last until approximately 1939) took hold of the nation. Despite the considerable achievements of his earlier career, Hoover was faulted for not doing more to ease the suffering experienced by so many during this period.

A determined young man

Herbert Clark Hoover was born into a Quaker family (a religious sect that is also known as the Society of Friends) in West Branch, Iowa, located about 25 miles (40 kilometers) from Iowa City. His father, a blacksmith named Jesse Hoover, died of a heart attack when Hoover was six. Three years later, his mother, Hulda Hoover, died of typhoid (a serious infectious disease). The couple's three children were sent to live with various relatives.

Hoover spent the rest of his childhood in the home of his uncle, Henry John Minthorn, who lived in the Quaker village of Newport, Oregon. He attended a school run by his uncle and worked as an office boy in a real-estate office his uncle had established. It was during this somewhat lonely time in his life that he developed a reserved, disciplined nature and a determination to make his own way in the world. He decided that more than anything, he wanted to be financially independent.

In 1891 Hoover became part of the first class to enroll at brand-new Stanford University (then called Leland Stanford Junior University), which was located just south of San Francisco in what would become the town of Palo Alto, California. A good but not outstanding student, he was active in student government and was elected student-body treasurer. At Stanford Hoover met his future wife, Lou Henry. An athletic young woman who was as outgoing as Hoover was shy, she was the school's first female engineering student.

Becoming a millionaire

After four years Hoover graduated with a degree in mining engineering. At this period in U.S. history, the mineral resources hidden in the vast expenses of the western states were just beginning to be tapped, so this must have seemed like a very promising field. Hoover got his first job in a Nevada City, California, gold mine, pushing gold ore carts for ten hours a day and making a daily wage of only two dollars. A year later he began working as a clerk in the office of the Louis Janin mining firm, and in 1897 he was made assistant manager of the company's mining operation in New Mexico. His work also took him to the states of Arizona, Nevada, and Wyoming.

When Hoover was twenty-three, he was hired by a British mining company called Bewick, Moering. He went to work in the firm's remote mining camp in Australia, traveling by horse and camel over miles of dusty land and enduring blistering heat and insects. The company sent him to China in 1898. The next year he married Lou Henry. She joined him in China, just in time for the beginning of a conflict called the Boxer Rebellion, an uprising by people dissatisfied with the country's troubles and convinced that foreigners were to blame. Hoover took part in the defense of Tientsin when the city was attacked, while his new wife helped tend to the wounded.

Hoover rose through the ranks at Bewick, Moering and was sent to numerous locations in Asia, Europe, and Africa, usually leading teams that opened or operated mines. Hoover had become a millionaire by the time he was forty years old. Beginning in 1901, the main residence for Hoover and his family, which eventually included sons Herbert Jr. and Allan, was a large country house near London, England, complete with servants and extensive grounds. Retired from mining, Hoover had begun to feel restless when, in 1914, World War I broke out in Europe. This conflict involved a group of nations called the Allies (Great Britain, France, and Italy) that fought against Germany in its bid to expand its territory.

Gaining a reputation for competence

In the opening days of the war, a large number of U.S. citizens, most of them tourists, found themselves stranded in England. The U.S. government called on Hoover to try to resolve the situation, and within six weeks he had helped 120,000 people return to the United States. His reputation for competence and action soon led to his appointment as head of the Committee for Relief in Belgium (that country had been occupied by Germany, and many refugees were streaming across its borders into other nations). By the end of the war, Hoover's group would provide food to eleven million Belgian and French refugees, and he would help to raise two hundred million dollars in donations to assist the cause.

In 1917 the United States entered the war, and President Woodrow Wilson (1856–1924; served 1913–21) made Hoover head of the U.S. Food Administration. In this position he coordinated the production and supply of two million bushels of wheat to the starving people of war-torn Europe, while also urging food conservation in the United States. When the war ended, Hoover took part in the Paris Peace Conference of 1919, serving as an advisor to Wilson, among other roles. Two years later he directed a program to help ease suffering caused by a famine in the Soviet Union.

By this time Hoover had become a beloved figure to many Europeans, who sent cards and letters to thank him for the "Hoover lunches" they had received during the war. In Finland it became common to use the word "Hoover" to describe acts of kindness.

As the 1920 election approached, Hoover, who was a Republican, was seen as a possible candidate by both political parties. In the end, however, the Republican nomination went to Harding, who appointed Hoover secretary of commerce (the department that oversees trade and business concerns). He would remain in this position after Harding's unexpected death in 1923, when Vice President Calvin Coolidge (1872–1933; served 1923–29; see entry) became president.

One of the most active commerce secretaries ever

Hoover was a strong believer in individualism, equal opportunity, and self-reliance, values he explained in his 1922 book American Individualism. At the same time, he felt that business should be concerned not just with profit but also with public service and social responsibility. His vision of what he called "cooperative capitalism" tempered the laissez-faire approach (the belief that government should loosen its control of the economy and society in general) that dominated the 1920s with a concern for the less fortunate members of society.

Hoover poured all of his considerable energy and intellect into his job, becoming one of the most active commerce secretaries in the nation's history. Calling for cooperation instead of intense competition, he encouraged businesses and industries to voluntarily form trade associations; he also promoted the establishment of cooperative farm markets and sought to expand markets for U.S. products overseas. Under Hoover's direction, a new Division of Housing was set up and the Bureau of Standards was strengthened. He pushed for regulation of the fledgling radio and aviation industries and encouraged several states to cooperate in the construction of the huge, much-needed dam on the Colorado River that bears his name.

An outspoken advocate of efficiency in government, Hoover also made evident a genuine concern for others. During the devastating flood of the Mississippi River in 1927, 25,000 square miles (64,750 square kilometers) of land were underwater, and a million people were left homeless. Hoover took a very direct role in relief efforts, coordinating the provision of food, clothing, and housing and personally overseeing the construction of tent cities and rescue and evacuation boats. It was through actions like these that Hoover earned the nickname "the Great Humanitarian."

As the 1928 election approached, Coolidge surprised everyone by declining to run for reelection. The Republican Party soon put Hoover forward as a candidate, and he easily

From Hoover Lunches to Hoovervilles

Prior to his election to the presidency, Herbert Hoover earned the nickname of the Great Humanitarian for his efforts on behalf of people facing big crises. By the 1930s, however, his name was used to refer with scorn to poor, makeshift items.

As head of the U.S. Food Administration, Hoover spearheaded the effort to supply two million bushels of wheat to starving Europeans ravaged by World War I. Grateful Europeans referred positively to the food received from these efforts as "Hoover lunches." In 1917, as commerce secretary, he coordinated relief efforts after the Mississippi River flooded and left one million people homeless, ensuring that food, clothing, and housing were available to the flood's victims. But by the early 1930s Hoover's name no longer brought to mind charity and goodwill.

The United States was caught in the early years of the Great Depression, a long period of economic decline, rising unemployment, and hardship. Thousands of people found themselves out of work, unable to find new jobs, pay their bills, or buy food for their families. President Hoover believed that the nation's economy was best handled without government interference. At the same time, the general belief of the day was that people were responsible for their own success or failure. Aid for the unemployed, homeless, or hungry did not exist, and Hoover refused to grant government money to help those most affected by the Depression.

Unable to make a living or maintain their homes, tens of thousands of people were forced to live in shantytowns and scavenge for food. These shantytowns, made of scrap metal, wood, and whatever else could be fashioned into a shelter, came to be called "Hoovervilles," an insult to the president who was seen as doing little to help the U.S. people. Hoover's name was also attached in an uncomplimentary manner to other items. The homeless covered themselves with "Hoover blankets," which were old newspapers. Jackrabbits caught for food were called "Hoover hogs." Broken-down automobiles drawn by mules were "Hoover wagons."

Hoover's inability to meet the changing needs of the nation as it suffered through its worst economic crisis in its history changed his reputation and his popularity with the public. Despite his significant humanitarian efforts earlier in his career, he was unable to lead the nation through this dark time. Franklin D. Roosevelt succeeded Hoover to the presidency after the 1932 election. He was elected under the promise to use government funds to help put people to work and to provide assistance with food and housing for those in need.

won the nomination. After a campaign during which Hoover pledged to continue with the same policies as the Coolidge administration—lowering taxes, reducing the national debt, and maintaining an isolationist stance (staying out of other nations' problems) in foreign affairs—Hoover beat the Democratic candidate, New York governor Al Smith (1873–1944), by more than six million votes.

A presidency overshadowed by disaster

Clearly, voters had closely associated Hoover with the general prosperity that most of the nation had enjoyed throughout the Republican-dominated 1920s. Hoover forecast only good times for the nation in his March 1929 inaugural speech. As quoted in Erica Hanson's book The 1920s, he declared, "I have no fears for the future of our country. It is bright with hope."

For many years Hoover's presidency would be closely linked to the economic disaster that occurred before the end of its first year. Few now remember Hoover's significant accomplishments, especially in domestic affairs. A consistent advocate for conserving natural resources, he oversaw the expansion of national forests and parks. He boosted the budget for highway construction and promoted prison reform, improved child welfare, ensured better treatment for African Americans, and oversaw the growth of the aviation industry.

In foreign affairs Hoover advocated good relations with the Latin American nations and made a goodwill tour of that region early in his presidency. He tried to promote international peace through two disarmament conferences (meetings at which country representatives discussed reducing weapons), in London in 1930 and in Geneva, Switzerland, in 1932, but these were ultimately unsuccessful. When Japan invaded the Chinese region of Manchuria in 1931, Hoover directed Secretary of State Henry Stimson (1867–1950) to issue a condemnation of the action, but he did not impose economic sanctions (penalties) on Japan; some saw this as a mistake that allowed Japan to gain more power, leading to the outbreak of World War II (1939–45). In order to help the struggling European economies, Hoover arranged a one-year moratorium (temporary postponement) of debts owed to the United States from World War I.

Generally, though, Hoover's presidency was overshadowed by the events that began in October 1929. The 1920s had been dominated by a mood of optimism and prosperity, but as the end of the decade approached, some observers suggested that the economy could not continue to expand like this forever. Warning signs included a decline in construction and in consumer demand for some products, such as automobiles, coupled with a ballooning tendency for people to buy things on credit. Also very troubling was the tremendous rise in stock prices.

People who buy stocks in various companies are giving those businesses money with which to operate, in the hope of sharing in the profits when the company performs well. An increase in the price of a stock means that more people want to buy that stock, making it more valuable. When the price decreases, the stock loses value and investors may lose money. During the 1920s more U.S. citizens than ever before were investing in the stock market. Some were using their own savings, while others were borrowing money or buying stocks "on the margin" (with loans from stockbrokers that had to be repaid immediately if the stock lost value).

Many investors hoped to make a fortune on the stock market and believed that prices would continue to rise indefinitely. The New York Stock Exchange was trading six million to seven million shares (or stocks) per day by 1928, compared to a more normal rate of three million to four million. The high prices of stocks did not reflect their real value or the real earning capacity of companies. In the fall of 1929 stock market prices began dipping. Worried investors began selling off their stocks, which led to a general mood of panic. On October 24, a day known as Black Thursday, orders to sell stocks rose dramatically, while prices fell at the same steep rate. Public hysteria mounted, and five days later, on Black Tuesday, the crash was complete. Numerous banks were left with no cash to pay back loans, and many depositors lost their life savings.

Unable to ease the nation's woes

The nation was profoundly shaken by this financial collapse. In the days immediately following the crash, Hoover issued statements that were meant to comfort people and restore calm. But the situation only worsened. In response, Hoover followed his lifelong instincts, focusing on voluntary action rather than government intervention. He urged industry leaders not to cut jobs and wages, and he asked banks to join

together to help other banks in trouble. Hoover called on charity organizations and local governments to help those who were unemployed, homeless, or hungry.

It soon became clear that the nation was in a full-blown economic depression. Meanwhile, Hoover put most of the blame for the nation's weak economy on outside sources, especially the poor European economies. He signed the Hawley-Smoot Tariff, which raised the rates that other countries had to pay to import their goods into the United States. This, however, only caused resentment and led to a decline in exports leaving the United States, which some said made the depression worse.

By 1931 Hoover was forced to take more drastic steps. He established the Reconstruction Finance Corporation, which provided emergency loans to banks and businesses such as insurance companies. He supported legislation that would provide more loans for home construction. Yet he remained steadfastly opposed to the idea of starting big public works projects to give people jobs, as the Democrats were suggesting. Hoover feared that this would lead to a disastrous budget deficit (an excess in government spending). Further, he firmly believed that offering people such help from the federal government would chip away at the self-reliance and love of freedom that he valued so highly.

Meanwhile, people were suffering as the unemployment rate rose steadily, businesses closed their doors, and families could not make ends meet. The man who had always been called the Great Humanitarian now seemed uncaring. The final blow to Hoover's reputation came in the spring of 1932, when about seventeen thousand veterans of World War I marched to Washington, D.C., to demand immediate payment of the bonuses they had been promised for their military service. The Senate defeated their proposal and most returned to their homes, but some remained in the makeshift village of shacks that had been built for them. An attempt to make them leave resulted in the deaths of two veterans and two police officers. In response, Hoover called out federal troops to evict those who remained, a measure that many people saw as unnecessarily harsh.

As the 1932 election campaign got under way, 23 percent of U.S. workers were unemployed. The Democratic candidate was the dynamic Franklin Delano Roosevelt (1882–1945; served 1933–45), who promised voters a program he called a "New Deal" to ease the nation's woes. Hoover warned that the changes Roosevelt was proposing were too radical, but he seemed to have lost the public's confidence. Roosevelt won the election by a landslide, gaining 22.8 million votes to Hoover's 15.7 million.

After leaving office, an embittered Hoover continued to criticize Roosevelt's policies, describing them in his 1934 book The Challenge to Liberty as threats to freedom and free enterprise. Tensions between Hoover and the Republican Party leadership made his quiet bids for the Republican nomination in 1936 and 1940 unsuccessful. Although he continued to write and lecture, Hoover was not again active in government until 1947, when President Harry S Truman (1884–1972; served 1945–53) appointed him to preside over the Committee on Reorganization of the Executive Branch, which researched ways to make government more streamlined and efficient. He served in the same position again under President Dwight D. Eisenhower (1890–1969; served 1953–61).

By the time of his death in 1964, Hoover had become something of an elder statesman, respected for his experience and recognized for his contributions.

For More Information


Burner, David. Herbert Hoover: A Public Life. New York: Knopf, 1978.

Clinton, Susan. Herbert Hoover: Thirty-First President of the United States. Chicago, IL: Children's Press, 1988.

Fausold, Martin. The Presidency of Herbert C. Hoover. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1985.

Hanson, Erica. The 1920s. San Diego, CA: Lucent Books, 1999.

Hoff-Wilson, Joan. Herbert Hoover: A Public Life. Boston: Beacon, 1984.

Hoff-Wilson, Joan. Herbert Hoover, Forgotten Progressive. Boston: Little, Brown, 1975.

Nash, George H. The Life of Herbert Hoover, Vol. I. New York: Norton, 1983.

Nye, Frank T., Jr. Doors of Opportunity: The Life and Legacy of Herbert Hoover. West Branch, IA: The Herbert Hoover Presidential Library Association, 1988.

Polikoff, Barbara G. Herbert C. Hoover: 31st President of the United States. Ada, OK: Garrett Educational Corporation, 1990.

Web Sites

"Herbert Clark Hoover (1929–1933)." American President. Available online at http://www.americanpresident.org/history/herberthoover/. Accessed on June 24, 2005.

"Herbert Hoover." The White House. Available online at http://www.whitehouse.gov/history/presidents/hh31.html. Accessed on June 24,2005.

Hoover, Herbert

views updated Jun 11 2018

Herbert Hoover

born august 10, 1874 west branch, iowa

died october 20, 1964 new york, new york

thirty-first president of the united states

"Hoover pursued his private and public careers…based on this cooperative work ethic, whereby all members of the community did their best in their particular 'callings' in life for the good of everyone."

joan hoff wilson in herbert hoover: forgotten progressive

Herbert Hoover was the thirty-first president of the United States. Elected in November 1928 and inaugurated in March 1929, Hoover had the misfortune of being president as the U.S. economy began a dramatic downward spiral into the Great Depression. Attempts by his administration to address the severe economic crisis were not enough to slow the decline. As a result, Hoover faced much of the blame for the financial troubles of many Americans.

Engineer turns humanitarian

Hoover was born to a farming family in West Branch, Iowa, and had a strict Quaker upbringing. The Quakers are a religious group known for their humanitarian activities, strong belief in education, and rejection of war; a humanitarian is a person who promotes the general welfare of others. Hoover was orphaned at age nine: His father died of heart trouble in 1880 and his mother of typhoid fever in 1884. After living with various Iowan relatives, Hoover left for Oregon, where he spent his teen years with an uncle in Newberg and Salem. In Salem at age fifteen Hoover worked in the sales office for the Oregon Land Company, selling orchard plots, and quickly showed his business skills. A good student, Hoover went to Stanford University, where he earned a geology degree. In 1895 he was part of Stanford's first graduating class. While at Stanford he met his future wife, Lou Henry, who was also a Stanford graduate in geology. They married in 1899 and had two sons.

Hoover became a mining engineer just as the United States began a period of exploration for foreign minerals. Developing mines in South America, Hoover became a millionaire by the age of forty. From his Quaker roots, he had also adopted a progressive political outlook, maintaining that social good could be attained by cooperation, volunteerism, and business self-regulation. Progressives believe in using the organizational powers of the government to stimulate voluntary efforts toward solving social and economic problems. Beginning public service during World War I (1914–18), Hoover created and was head of the Commission for Relief in Belgium. At the time, the United States was still neutral and not participating in the war. Belgium had been defeated by German troops and was running short on food. Hoover's agency saved thousands of lives. Catching the attention of President Woodrow Wilson (1856–1924; served 1913–21), Hoover was appointed U.S. food administrator when the United States entered the war. He served in that position from 1917 through 1919. As administrator, he led a program of voluntary food rationing in America so food could be shipped to Europe. (Rationing means fairly distributing food or goods that are in short supply.) After the war, Hoover returned to Europe as director general of the American Relief Administration in 1919 and 1920, directing food supplies to millions of needy people. Hoover had become an internationally famous humanitarian.

Secretary of commerce

Having established a reputation as a humanitarian and an excellent administrator, Hoover was sought by both the Democrats and the Republicans to be their candidate in the 1920 presidential election. However, he was not ready to take on such an ambitious position, so he declined the offers. The victor in the election, Republican Warren G. Harding (1865–1923; served 1921–23), appointed Hoover secretary of commerce, a position he would continue to hold through President Calvin Coolidge's administration (1923–29). Hoover brought major change to the Commerce Department, building it into a major governmental department. By the late 1920s Hoover became very concerned with the widespread speculation in the stock market. Speculation at that time involved buying stocks using borrowed money, with the assumption that stock prices would continue to rise. Bankers would speculate using depositors' money. They then loaned money to stockbrokers, who, in turn, would allow their customers to invest with the borrowed money. Hoover tried to convince the bankers to stop these risky practices. However, he found few people, in government or in the banking and financial communities, who shared his concerns. With stock prices zooming upward, easy fortunes could be made, and Hoover's warnings were ignored.

Troubled presidency

When Coolidge decided not to run for reelection in the 1928 presidential election, the highly popular Hoover was chosen as the Republican candidate. Amazingly, this was the first time Hoover had ever run for public office. Riding the wave of economic prosperity through the 1920s under two previous Republican presidents, Hoover defeated Democratic candidate Alfred E. Smith (1873–1944). With his engineering and business background, Hoover represented technical efficiency in a time of booming industrial production. However, Hoover also brought progressivism to the White House. Hoover wanted to make the U.S. capitalist system more humane. For example, in early 1929 Hoover called a special session of Congress to solve the lingering economic problems of farmers. Farmers had been suffering from overproduction and low crop prices since the end of World War I. Under Hoover's leadership, Congress passed the Agricultural Marketing Act in June 1929. The act attempted to help farmers stabilize and improve their economic situation. Specifically, it established the Federal Farm Board to loan federal funds to farmers' cooperatives (organizations of farmers formed to economically cooperate by coordinating the production and marketing of their produce).

In October 1929 the stock market crashed, beginning a long period of economic difficulties, first for the United States and later for the world. Hoover did not think the economic situation would become severe, because he believed that the problem was largely due to overspeculation in stocks and that it was limited to the United States. To try to solve the problem, Hoover applied his personal beliefs in cooperation and voluntary actions and exercised his powerful role in government: He organized various groups to help quickly turn the economy around. He urged citizens to make private contributions to relief organizations to aid the poor and requested voluntary cooperation among business leaders to stabilize economic conditions. He used fact-finding commissions, business associations, and educational conferences to bring industrial and labor leaders together to work toward solutions.

Hoover and the Depression

Despite his worldwide reputation as a humanitarian and successful businessman, Hoover was uncomfortable in front of crowds. To the public he seemed cold and insensitive; his shyness came off as uncaring aloofness. Few were aware that President Hoover donated his presidential income to charity. At the onset of the Depression, Hoover called for voluntary cooperation of business, industrial, and labor leaders. He believed direct federal aid would lead to political corruption and low public morale. As the economy struggled and Hoover's efforts to promote volunteerism fell short, the public came to believe Hoover was responsible for their plight. Hoover's name became associated with the widespread suffering caused by the Depression. As unemployment grew, tens of thousands became homeless. In vacant lots and parks, on riversides, and even in dumps, shantytowns of makeshift shelters appeared; they were called "Hoovervilles." Shelters in the Hoovervilles were made of scrap metal, cardboard, and any other available materials. St. Louis was home to the largest Hooverville, which contained more than one thousand people. There were also "Hoover blankets" (newspapers), "Hoover heaters" (campfires), and "Hoover tourists" (hoboes on trains).

On November 21, 1929, Hoover hosted conferences at the White House. Attending were leaders from business, labor, and farming, who were being asked to help the government solve the nation's economic difficulties. Hoover sought promises from industry and labor to maintain existing wages, employment, and production levels, and to refrain from strikes. Hoover also urged state and local governments and the federal departments to speed up already scheduled public works projects and other construction activities. (Public works projects, which would provide jobs for the unemployed, involved government-funded construction of public buildings, roads, and bridges.) In December the National Business Survey Conference, consisting of four hundred business leaders, was established to enforce the voluntary agreements. On February 18, 1930, Hoover optimistically announced that the worst was over.

With the economy still struggling in April, Hoover guided through Congress a bill for $150 million to put people to work constructing public buildings. He also approved the start of construction of the Hoover Dam on the Colorado River, a project that would employ thousands of engineers and construction workers. In early 1930 Hoover called for another special session of Congress to follow through on his promise to increase tariffs on foreign farm products. Tariffs are fees imposed on goods imported to the United States from foreign countries. Because tariffs made foreign goods more expensive, Americans tended to buy only products made and grown in the United States, thereby helping American farmers. However, it would take fourteen months for Congress to pass the Hawley-Smoot Tariff Act in June 1931. The controversial measure to raise tariffs on imported farm produce led to a major decline in world trade and spread the Depression to the rest of the world.

Despite funding increases coming from all levels of government, private construction decreased substantially, and nationwide unemployment grew from four million in 1930 to over eight million in 1931. Americans who managed to hold on to their jobs saw their salaries cut. The loss of jobs and income led to many bank failures because borrowers could not pay back bank loans and depositors had to take money out of their savings to meet daily expenses. To assist failing banks, Hoover pressured bankers and insurance executives to voluntarily organize the National Credit Corporation (NCC) in October 1931. The NCC was given $500 million in federal funds to loan to banks in need. However, members of the NCC were not enthusiastic about the program, and it proved ineffective. Likewise, having lost almost $350 million by 1932, the Federal Farm Board program proved a costly and ineffective way to halt overproduction of farm products. Overproduction kept prices for the products very low. Hoover asked farmers to voluntarily cut back crop production, but few did.

Hoover's plan of relying on volunteerism was clearly failing. He had to turn to a more direct involvement of the federal government. Hoover created the Reconstruction Finance Corporation (RFC), a federal agency, in January 1932 to provide loans to banks. In addition $750 million was made available to industry and business by the Glass-Steagall Act of February 1932. Seeing that local government efforts and private organizations were not meeting the needs of the unemployed and the hungry, Hoover signed the Emergency Relief and Construction Act in July 1932, providing $2 billion for public works and $300 million in loans to states for cash payments to the poor and the unemployed. Some believed these actions by Hoover in 1932 prevented a complete collapse of the U.S. economy. Even though unemployment rose to twelve million workers, some saw signs of economic improvement by the summer of 1932.

The Bonus Army and election defeat

A major event unfolded during the summer months of 1932 that would dash Hoover's hopes for reelection. Thousands of unemployed World War I veterans, called the Bonus Army, had marched on Washington, D.C., in the spring and set up camps. They demanded early payment of cash bonuses promised to them by Congress but not scheduled to begin until years later. Despite the marchers, Hoover and Congress defeated a bill that would have approved early payments. Following the legislative defeat, most of the Bonus Army left, but some two thousand stayed in their makeshift camps to continue the protest. Finally, Hoover sent the U.S. Army in late July to clear out the remaining protesters. Against his orders the army used considerable force, leading to bad publicity about Hoover's handling of the situation.

Blamed for the Depression and the Bonus Army incident, Hoover lost the 1932 presidential election by a landslide to Democratic candidate Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882–1945; served 1933–45; see entry). Despite the ineffectiveness of Hoover's efforts to respond to the difficulties brought on by the Depression, his programs marked a major new trend in the federal government's involvement in domestic economic affairs. For the first time in U.S. history the federal government established public works projects to address unemployment and set up federal loan programs to aid Americans confronting debts they could not repay. Hoover also adopted
foreign policies quite different from his predecessors. For example, rather than focusing only on U.S. military domination over the region's political and economic developments, Hoover sought a more equal relationship with Latin American nations through international trade and economic assistance. Roosevelt would take many of these ideas and expand them to a much grander scale to combat the domestic effects of the Depression and to forge his "Good Neighbor" policy with Latin America.

After leaving office, Hoover did not comment publicly on the Roosevelt administration for two years. But in 1935 he became a major critic of the New Deal. The New Deal was a collection of legislation and programs designed by the Roosevelt administration to relieve the economic problems of the Depression. The New Deal programs were wide-ranging and affected the daily lives of Americans. Hoover remained a firm believer in limited federal government and thought that capitalism should regulate itself. He maintained that industry should have essentially unrestricted control over their production goals and means of distributing their goods as opposed to the New Deal efforts at regulating production and dictating work conditions. Hoover reentered politics in 1936 but failed to gain the Republican nomination for president. He failed again in 1940 even though he had played a role in Republican victories in the 1938 congressional elections.

Later life

With his vast experience in food relief in Europe during World War I, Hoover was consulted in the development of food relief policy during and immediately after World War II (1939–45). He was named chairman of the Famine Emergency Commission and stayed in the public spotlight traveling, giving speeches, and writing. In keeping with his Quaker roots, Hoover opposed the U.S. decision to drop two atomic bombs on Japan to end World War II, the U.S. involvement in the Korean War (1950–53), and the establishment of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in Europe. Membership in NATO placed the United States in a defense alliance with European nations against the threat of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). Hoover was critical of early cold war (an intense political and economic rivalry from 1945 to 1991 between the United States and the USSR falling just short of military conflict) policies regarding the USSR and did not support the anticommunist fervor that ran through Congress in the late 1940s and early 1950s. He headed two commissions under President Harry Truman (1884–1972; served 1945–53) and President Dwight Eisenhower (1890–1969; served 1953–61), guiding reorganization of the federal government during the postwar period. His popularity, severely damaged by the Great Depression, was well restored with his long service to society and government following his presidency. Hoover died at age ninety in New York City in October 1964 and was buried in West Branch, Iowa.

For More Information


burner, david. herbert hoover: a public life. new york, ny: alfred a. knopf, 1979.

hoff-wilson, joan. herbert hoover: forgotten progressive. boston, ma: little, brown, 1975.

holford, david m. herbert hoover. berkeley heights, nj: enslow, 1999.

nash, george h. the life of herbert hoover. 3 vols. new york, ny: w. w. norton, 1966–88.

smith, richard n. an uncommon man: the triumph of herbert hoover. new york, ny: simon & schuster, 1984.

Web Sites

herbert hoover presidential library and museum.http://hoover.nara.gov (accessed on september 8, 2002).

Hoover, Herbert

views updated May 29 2018

Herbert Hoover

Herbert Hoover was inaugurated as the thirty-first president of the United States in March 1929. Despite the economic prosperity that existed then, the country would be mired in the worst financial crisis of its history soon after Hoover took office. Though Hoover involved the federal government in fixing the country's economic problems more than preceding presidents had done, his efforts were deemed “too little, too late” by many Americans.

Early life

Herbert Clark Hoover was born August 10, 1874, in West Branch, Iowa , a small Quaker settlement near Iowa City. His father, Jesse Hoover, was a village blacksmith and merchant. Hulda Randall Minthorn Hoover, his mother, was an active lay minister in the Society of Friends, which the Quakers had come to be called. Both died when Hoover was quite young, his father in 1880, then his mother in 1884.

Hoover and his two siblings were separated and sent to live with other family members. Hoover was sent to live with his uncle, Henry John Minthorn, in Newberg, Oregon . Though he attended school at first, Hoover soon dropped out to oversee the daily operations of his uncle's real estate business.

Hoover attended night school to develop his business and office skills. Living with his oppressive uncle left Hoover with an independent spirit and a determination to earn his own financial freedom. So Hoover left Oregon to attend Stanford University in California in 1891.

Herbert Hoover took advantage of the innovative curriculum at Stanford. He received an excellent education in geology and participated in college politics. It was at Stanford that Hoover met the woman he would later marry, Lou Henry, a fellow geology student.

After graduation in 1895, Hoover worked as a day laborer in the Reward Gold Mine in Grass City, California. In 1896, he got an office job at an important mining firm in San Francisco, California. His experience and promotions there eventually led in 1897 to a position with one of the world's leading mining consulting firms, Bewick, Moreing, and Company of London, England.

The company sent Hoover to Australia, where he proved his worth as a mining engineer by recommending several successful mine purchases for the company. He was quickly considered a success and an authority in his field, making a staggering salary of $10,000 per year. He soon proposed marriage to Lou Henry, and they were married in 1899.

In 1898, Hoover went to China on behalf of Bewick, Moreing, to exploit extensive and profitable coal deposits. While he was there, Chinese nationalists rebelling against foreign powers began the Boxer Rebellion. In exchange for helping the Chinese government defend against the rebellion, Hoover was given control of the Chinese Engineering and Mining Company. He used the company to buy a share of partnership in Bewick, Moreing. Hoover's later business deals in places such as Sri Lanka, Russia, Egypt, Zimbabwe, Burma, and Malaysia helped him to amass a great fortune.

In 1901, the Hoovers moved to London, where they had two children. Hoover was drawn to move beyond amassing great fortunes and started to consider philanthropic ways to apply his skills. When World War I (1914–18) broke out in 1914, he found his opportunity.

A new career

When war started in August 1914, the American ambassador to Britain asked for Hoover's assistance to aid Americans stranded abroad at the onset of war. Hoover did this with such efficiency that he was asked to oversee the Commission for Relief in Belgium (CRB) to help people in German-occupied Belgium. The CRB operated much like a state, with 4,000 committees worldwide, 130,000 volunteers, and $200 million in gifts and subsidies. Hoover's extraordinary diplomatic skill, his knowledge of worldwide shipping, and his determination and perseverance kept a steady flow of food to Belgium.

In May 1917, U.S. president Woodrow Wilson (1856–1924; served 1913–21) appointed Hoover food administrator for the United States during its involvement in World War I. In that role, Hoover stimulated agricultural production, controlled surging farm prices, and was able to ship food surpluses to a famished Europe.

Hoover took part in the Paris Peace Conference of 1919 to negotiate peace treaties after World War I. He held a variety of positions: chairman of the Inter-Allied Food Council, director general of the American Relief Administration, economic director of the Supreme Economic Council, chairman of the European Coal Council, and personal advisor to President Wilson.

Secretary of commerce

By 1920, rumblings about nominating Hoover for the presidency were heard among both Republicans and Democrats. Though a Hoover nomination did not happen that year, his backing of Republican Warren G. Harding (1865–1923; served 1921–23), who became the next president, earned Hoover a new position as the secretary of commerce, the head of the U.S. Department of Commerce.

Hoover was secretary of commerce from 1921 to 1929 under both President Harding and President Calvin Coolidge (1872–1933; served 1923–29). In this role, Hoover encouraged the formation of trade associations, pushed cooperative markets for farmers, and was particularly aggressive in seeking overseas markets for American businesses. His greatest aim was for commercial expansion to replace military investment for bringing peace and prosperity to the world.

In 1927, the Mississippi River flooded, which left 350,000 people destitute. Dominating the headlines, Hoover directed the feeding, clothing, and housing of the stricken families. Such publicity made him the most famous secretary of commerce in U.S. history, and in 1928 Hoover was nominated and elected president of the United States.


When Herbert Hoover was inaugurated in March 1929, the United States was enjoying a period of prosperity. U.S. business was growing, manufactured goods and raw materials flowed from the United States to the rest of the world, and technology was developing at an impressive rate. The prosperity, however, was far from evenly distributed, and there were many who were doing poorly, too.

In time, manufacturers started to have too much inventory and began to allow installment payments, or credit, for purchases. Those who had a little to invest risked their earnings in the stock market, which is the market for buying and selling shares in large companies. Often people bought stocks on margin, which meant they only paid a fraction of the total cost for the stock and borrowed the rest. If stock prices went up, investors repaid the borrowed amount and pocketed the profit. However, if stocks went down, investors lost the entire investment if they could not repay the borrowed money to the broker.

On October 24, 1929, stock prices plummeted. Prices continued to dive as investors scrambled to sell their stocks, and thousands of people lost their savings. It marked the beginning of the Great Depression (1929–41; a time of economic downturn in the United States) and Hoover's greatest challenge.

Domestic recovery

In November 1929, Hoover gathered railroad, labor, and construction leaders along with mayors and governors. In December, he gathered groups of business, labor, and farm leaders, too. Warning of a serious recession, Hoover worked to place the responsibility for avoiding major catastrophe within their hands. He asked them to foster industrial expansion, avoid strikes, share work when possible, stabilize prices, and provide relief where needed. Most of all, he stressed that there must not be drastic wage cuts. He pushed both national and state public offices to employ people out of work, asking Congress and state governors to appropriate, or provide the funds needed, for such jobs.

Though it seemed that Hoover's policies were working by spring 1930, by fall economic conditions had again worsened. Employers were forced to cut production. Hoover responded by creating the President's Emergency Committee for Unemployment, which established three thousand local committees. By June 1931, $2 billion was being spent and a million men were being employed on federal projects. Despite occasional rallies in the economic indicators, by 1932 over 20 percent of the labor force was unemployed, and only one-quarter of the unemployed was receiving relief assistance.

The most important effort Hoover made to bring relief was the recovery program called the Reconstruction Finance Corporation (RFC). The RFC started in January 1932. That year it provided loans to over five thousand banks, railroads, life insurance companies, farm mortgage associations, and building and loan associations. It saved many businesses from failure, halting further financial collapse and restoring some public confidence.

Though Hoover took great steps to bring relief to the country, he had two personal limits that reduced his popularity with the public and contributed to his inability to win another term as president. He opposed offering direct federal aid to the unemployed. Believing such aid would lower wages to a bare minimum and reward laziness, he insisted that unemployment relief was a problem for local governments. Hoover also was against any policies that might shift the budget out of balance by spending more federal money than the government was collecting in taxes and other revenues. In Hoover's opinion, a balanced federal budget was the keystone of recovery.

The Bonus Army March

By spring 1932, there were signs of social unease and community disruptions. Hunger marches took place, and the unemployed rioted. The most memorable event was the gathering of World War I veterans in Washington, D.C. Known as the Bonus Army, the eleven thousand veterans marched in front of the White House and the Capitol demanding an early payment of a bonus not scheduled for distribution until 1945. They camped in abandoned buildings and in tents at Anacostia Flats, across the river from the Capitol, waiting for Congress to make a decision.

When payment was rejected by Congress, most men returned home. A minority, however, refused to leave the buildings, and Hoover instructed that the men be evicted. Both his secretary of war, Patrick Hurley (1883–1963), and U.S. Army general Douglas MacArthur (1880–1964) took disastrous steps to carry out the eviction. The veterans were pushed back far beyond their camps with the use of tanks, guns, and tear gas. Two veterans were killed. Hoover was personally horrified, but instead of blaming Hurley and MacArthur, he took personal responsibility and suffered the resulting negative opinions.

Foreign policies

The economic problems of the Great Depression affected the rest of the developed world, and President Hoover's challenges extended beyond the nation's borders, too. He met those challenges with the intention of maintaining peace. To ease the global depression, he allowed nations to delay payment of debts to the United States for a year.

In Asia, Japan was launching military attacks against China. The Hoover administration's Stimson Doctrine stated that the United States would not recognize any unilateral change in Asia imposed by force. The United States, however, refrained from supporting China with military intervention.

Hoover promoted international disarmament, or the voluntary reduction in arms worldwide. He also initiated the “good neighbor” policy, which implied the United States would refrain from intervening in other country's politics.

Post-presidential years

President Hoover only served one term as president, losing to Franklin D. Roosevelt in the 1932 election, but he continued to be vocal and active after his presidency. During World War II (1939–45) Hoover launched relief efforts in German-occupied Poland and Finland.

In 1946, President Harry S. Truman (1884–1972; served 1945–53) appointed Hoover honorary chairman of the Famine Emergency Committee. In 1947, Truman named Hoover to head the Committee on Organization of the Executive Branch of Government, now known as the Hoover Commission. Hoover's job was to evaluate the structure and operation of the executive branch of government and to recommend improvements. He performed this service again for President Dwight D. Eisenhower (1890–1969; served 1953–61) in 1953.

Until the end of his life, Hoover wrote a number of books, including three memoirs and several volumes on his relief activities. He also wrote multiple defenses of his governmental policies. Herbert Hoover died in New York City on October 20, 1964.

Herbert Clark Hoover

views updated May 29 2018

Herbert Clark Hoover

Herbert Clark Hoover (1874-1964), thirty-first president of the United States, could not halt the severest economic depression in American history because his governmental theories prevented him from taking drastic steps.

On Aug. 10, 1874, Herbert Hoover was born at West Branch, Iowa, of Quaker ancestry. His father died when he was 6 and, after his mother's death less than 3 years later, he went to live with an uncle in Oregon. In 1891 he entered Stanford University, where he specialized in geology.

After graduating, Hoover worked as a mining engineer in the western United States, Australia, and China. In 1901 he became a junior partner in a London-based mining firm and 7 years later set up on his own. During these years he amassed a fortune estimated at $4 million. On Feb. 10, 1899, he married his college sweetheart, Lou Henry; they had two sons, Herbert, Jr., and Allan.

In London when World War I broke out, Hoover was asked to head the Belgian relief program. He was so successful that in May 1917 President Woodrow Wilson called him back to head the U.S. Food Administration. After the armistice he was placed in charge of the American Relief Administration, organized to feed war-ravaged Europe. When the congressional appropriation ran out, Hoover successfully appealed for private contributions to keep the work going.

Hoover was talked of as a possible 1920 presidential candidate by admirers in both parties. Although he publicly declared himself a Republican, the party's Old Guard disliked him because he was a late convert, and its isolationist wing disapproved of his advocacy of the League of Nations. Republican president Warren G. Harding, however, appointed him secretary of commerce, a post he held through the following administration of Calvin Coolidge.

Secretary of Commerce

During the 1920s Hoover set forth the basic philosophy that would guide him throughout his career. His central tenet was individualism, by which he meant equality of opportunity for each man to make the fullest possible use of his abilities. But he insisted that individualism be tempered by a sense of social responsibility and voluntary cooperation for the general good; he rejected old-fashioned free competition as wasteful. He believed that the government's function was to conserve natural resources, protect equality of opportunity, encourage business efficiency, promote scientific research, and build major public works.

Hoover transformed the Commerce Department into an effective instrument for implementing his philosophy. He fostered the growth of trade associations to bring improved efficiency and stability to industry, promoted American foreign trade, and expanded the Department's information and statistical services. He also set up a Division of Housing to encourage home building, built the Bureau of Standards into one of the country's leading scientific research institutions, and successfully pushed for stronger government regulation of the commercial aviation and radio industries.

Hoover's influence became increasingly important in all economic questions facing the Federal government. Believing that management and labor must cooperate for the good of all, he favored collective bargaining (though not the closed shop), worked behind the scenes to resolve labor disputes, and encouraged development of privately financed unemployment insurance. For relief to farmers he opposed government price-fixing of agricultural products, instead favoring increased Federal assistance to farm marketing cooperatives.

After Coolidge decided not to run again in 1928, Hoover was the popular choice of the party rank and file and won the Republican presidential nomination on the first ballot. In the election he defeated Democrat Alfred E. Smith by over 6 million votes, even breaking the "solid South."

Foreign Affairs

Hoover's record in foreign affairs was mixed. Immediately after his election he made a successful goodwill tour of Latin America, and throughout his term he actively worked for a good-neighbor policy south of the border. He was interested in promoting international disarmament, but the London Naval Conference of 1930 was only partly successful, and his efforts at the Geneva Disarmament Conference (which met in 1932 to secure abolition or reduction of offensive weapons) failed. His administration's worst mistake concerned the Japanese invasion and occupation of Manchuria in 1931. Secretary of State Henry Stimson was willing to impose economic sanctions against Japan, but Hoover, fearful of instigating a war, limited the American response to the ineffectual Stimson Nonrecognition Doctrine.

Domestic Policy

Domestically, Hoover expanded the national forests and parks, laid the groundwork for many of the later New Deal accomplishments in water-resource development, increased Federal highway spending, was instrumental in setting up the privately financed Research Committee on Social Trends, reorganized the Federal prison system, promoted the growth of civilian aviation, and even approved a bill which drastically limited the use of injunctions in labor disputes.

On the other hand, Hoover's opposition to government competition with business led him to veto a bill for government operation of the hydroelectric facilities at Muscle Shoals, Ala. And despite warnings from economists of its disastrous consequences for international trade and economic stability, he signed legislation which raised the average level of tariff duties from roughly 30 to about 59 percent. But what most damaged his reputation was the inadequacy of his response to the depression that followed the stock market crash of October-November 1929.

Voluntarism versus Federal Intervention

Although previous chief executives had taken the position that the business cycle would simply have to run its course, Hoover believed that the government could and should act to cushion economic shocks. When the Depression hit, he made repeated optimistic statements about the economy to bolster business confidence, had the Federal Reserve Board follow an "easy money" policy, and accelerated work on Federal projects. However, his major emphasis was on voluntary action rather than government intervention: he exhorted industry to maintain employment and wages, induced bankers to establish the National Credit Corporation to assist threatened banks, and relied upon the traditional agencies of private charity and local government to provide relief for the unemployed.

But this voluntarism was a failure. The business community lacked the discipline and sense of social responsibility for effective cooperation. Yet, despite increasing hardship in all sectors, Hoover was convinced that the country was basically sound. He held that the causes of the Depression lay outside the United States. To prevent the threatened breakdown of the German economy under the burden of reparations payments—which would have jeopardized millions of dollars of American loans—he arranged a one-year moratorium on payment both of reparations and inter-Allied war debts.

By late 1931 Hoover was driven to embrace more direct Federal intervention. He established the Reconstruction Finance Corporation to make emergency loans to financial institutions and certain corporations. He supported the Glass-Steagall Act, which liberalized the Federal Reserve System's credit requirements; and the Federal Home Loan Bank Act, to assist building and loan societies, savings banks, and insurance companies in expanding loans for residential construction. Hoover's program rested on the assumption that infusing additional credit into the economy would be enough to revive business activity. Still the economy continued its downward slide.

Nevertheless, Hoover stood firm against the massive public-works spending that Democrats and progressive Republicans increasingly demanded. He was adamantly against any direct Federal relief for the unemployed, not only for budgetary reasons, but because he was determined to preserve what he regarded as the fundamental American principles of individual and local responsibility.

Despite sharp Republican losses in the 1930 congressional elections, Hoover largely had his way. He successfully fought a proposal to strengthen the ineffective U.S. Employment Service. And the Relief and Construction Act (1932), which authorized loans of $1.5 billion to state and local agencies for self-liquidating public works and $300 million to the states for relief purposes, was watered down to meet his specifications. He suffered only two major legislative defeats: a proposed sales tax for balancing the budget and an overridden veto on the bill permitting veterans to borrow up to 50 percent of the face value of their bonus certificates.

"Bonus Army" Blunder

In his personal relations Hoover was affable and genial, a sensitive and humane idealist—qualities he was unable to project to the public. His sensitivity to criticism led to poor relations with the press, and his resistance to direct Federal relief made him appear callous to the suffering around him.

Perhaps Hoover's worst blunder was his handling of the "bonus army." An estimated 17, 000 former servicemen flocked to Washington in the spring of 1932 to demand that Congress authorize the immediate payment in full of their bonus certificates. When the Senate, under Hoover's prodding, defeated the measure, most returned to their homes. An attempt by Washington police to evict those remaining resulted in the death of two veterans and two policemen. Hoover then called out Federal troops on July 28, 1932—an action that made him even more unpopular.

New Deal Triumphs

In the 1932 campaign Hoover warned that the program of Democratic nominee Franklin D. Roosevelt threatened a "radical departure" from the American way of life. His efforts to cooperate with the president-elect came to naught, because Roosevelt and his "Brain Trust" correctly suspected that Hoover wanted to commit the new administration to a continuation of his own policies. When Hoover left office in March 1933, nearly the entire United States economy was paralyzed.

In the years that followed, Hoover remained politically active, attacking Roosevelt's New Deal policies, which he blamed for prolonging the Depression by destroying business confidence. Prior to Pearl Harbor, Hoover was a strong isolationist; after World War II he was a leading exponent of the "Fortress America" theory.

Elder Statesman

When Hoover left office, he was probably the most hated president in American history. Only the passage of time led to a fairer judgment. In 1947 President Harry S. Truman appointed him chairman of the Commission on Organization of the Executive Branch of the Government. In 1953 President Dwight Elsenhower appointed him to the same job. The work of these two Hoover commissions provided the basis for a major reorganization of the executive branch. When he died on Oct. 20, 1964, Hoover was widely respected as one of the nation's foremost elder statesmen.

Hoover did more than any previous chief executive to combat a depression, but the limitations of his political and social philosophy proved his undoing. Perhaps the most significant result of his experiment in voluntarism was that its failure prepared the public to accept the farreaching expansion of Federal authority under the New Deal.

Further Reading

Before his death Hoover completed his Memoirs (3 vols., 1951-1952), covering the years up to 1941. There is no adequate biography. Eugene Lyons, Herbert Hoover: A Biography (1964), is superficial and eulogistic. Harris Gaylord Warren, Herbert Hoover and the Great Depression (1959), and Albert U. Romansco, The Poverty of Abundance: Hoover, the Nation, the Depression (1965), are useful, but both suffer from lack of access to the Hoover papers. See also Harold Wolfe, Herbert Hoover, Public Servant and Leader of the Loyal Opposition: A Study of his Life and Career (1956). A discussion of foreign policy is Robert H. Ferrell, American Diplomacy in the Great Depression: Hoover-Stimson Foreign Policy, 1929-1933 (1957). □

Hoover, Herbert

views updated May 09 2018


(August 10, 1874; October 20, 1964) Thirty-first president of the United States (1929–1933).

Herbert Hoover dedicated nearly fifty years to public service in roles ranging from international relief administrator to president of the United States. Few Americans played as significant a part in American wars or international relations as did Hoover during, and between, the great wars of the twentieth century. Hoover's activities on behalf of the U.S. government and nongovernmental international relief agencies during World War I first garnered him international renown. Deeply influenced both by the Quaker faith and the positivism of the Progressive era, Hoover applied the tenets of cooperative voluntarism and efficiency to the spheres of international relations and trade throughout his long public service.

While living in London in 1914, Hoover witnessed firsthand the commencement of European hostilities and the effects of World War I on noncombatants. As chairman of the American Committee, Hoover volunteered to assist Americans stranded in Europe, helping to repatriate thousands and giving material assistance to those in dire financial conditions. From 1914 to 1917, Hoover acted as the chairman of the Commission for Relief in Belgium (CRB), the nongovernmental international relief agency that raised millions of dollars to relieve the hardships of Belgians struggling to survive between two warring armies. The CRB distributed the aid with the grudging recognition of the belligerent nations.

After the United States entered the war, President Woodrow Wilson appointed Hoover the United States Food Administrator. In this capacity, Hoover managed the conservation and distribution of food material during the U.S. mobilization. Through a publicity campaign stating "Food Will Win the War," Hoover challenged Americans to voluntarily conserve their consumption of vital foodstuffs to help feed the American and Allied armies and Allied nonmilitary populations. By "Hooverizing" on "meatless Tuesdays" and "wheatless Wednesdays," Americans reduced food consumption by 15 percent without mandated rationing.

In 1919 Hoover played a notable role in the Versailles peace process as an economic advisor. More important, he became the director of the American Relief Administration (ARA) in war-ravaged Europe. The ARA ultimately fed 350 million people in twenty-one countries. Hoover acquired the label of the "Great Humanitarian" for his Herculean efforts to stave off starvation and material privation in postwar Europe.

Under Presidents Warren G. Harding and Calvin Coolidge, Hoover served as secretary of commerce. In

this position, Hoover emphasized the interdependence of the American and European economies in his attempts to redress the war debt and reparations issues. Hoover also called upon his wartime experiences with relief. In 1927, when the Mississippi river flooded in seven states, Hoover helped raise $15 million for the American Red Cross relief effort by appealing directly to the American people in a radio address.

Based on his successful career in public service, Hoover easily won the 1928 presidential election. During his term, he encountered a number of issues relating to American experiences during World War I. In the interests of peace and economic stability, Hoover attempted to lead the world toward disarmament and implemented the Kellogg-Briand Pact outlawing war. The U.S. government under Hoover sanctioned and paid for Gold Star Mothers to travel to Europe to attend the graves of their slain sons. In 1932, during the height of the Great Depression, Hoover faced the unwelcome presence in Washington, D.C., of 20,000 World War I veterans demanding immediate payment of their bonus. Fatefully, the Bonus March, and its dispersal at the hands of the U.S. Army, emerged as a symbol of Hoover's supposed disregard for American suffering during the Depression. Hoover lost the 1932 election to Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Hoover's post-presidential career showed no signs of weakening his commitment to public affairs. Hoover emerged as a staunch critic of the Roosevelt administration's foreign policy and cautioned that a slide into another world war would have catastrophic effects on American liberties. Although Hoover opposed U.S. involvement in the European conflict between 1939 and 1941, he continued to coordinate humanitarian assistance to noncombatants by aiding Finland and establishing the Polish Relief Commission. After Pearl Harbor, Hoover supported the war and stressed the need for international organizations to construct a lasting peace. Summoned by President Harry Truman, Hoover reexamined food shortages in the United States and conducted worldwide surveys as a member of the Famine Emergency Commission. Until his death in 1964, Hoover cautioned Americans about the spread of Communism but also the expansion in size and scope of the federal government. From World War I to the Cold War, Herbert Hoover was a prominent administrator and public servant, and an influential voice in American society during war.


During World War I the Allies used naval blockades to prevent the enemy from getting supplies from other sources, thus turning hunger into a weapon. As a result, the elderly and children suffered the most because soldiers and military support people received priority in the rationing of food and other necessities.

As the driving force behind the CRB (Commission for Relief in Belgium), which provided foodstuffs to occupied Belgium and France with the assurances of the German government that none of these supplies would be used by the German military, Herbert Hoover was in a position to assess the need for humanitarian relief in other war-torn countries as well. Hoover foresaw the likelihood that at war's end most of the population of Europe, winners and losers alike, would face famine and illness, in part a result of the blockade, in part because of the inability to farm and raise livestock. Hoover did not support the blockade. "I do not believe in starving women and children," he later wrote, recalling, "I did not believe that stunted bodies and deformed minds in the next generation were the foundation upon which to rebuild civilization."

In advance of America's likely entrance into the war, Hoover ordered the stockpiling of food and medical supplies. He left the CRB in capable hands in order to manage the American Relief Administration (ARA), which was responsible for mobilizing food and medical supplies. To Allied thinking, bread ranked with bullets in the inventory of war priorities. Thus the goal of the ARA was to procure enough exports from the United States, Canada, and the West Indies to make up the large deficits of the Allies and certain neutral countries (and after the armistice all of Europe) and to do so without ruining the U.S. economy.

Hoover solicited the voluntary cooperation of individuals, food producers, and restaurant owners to reduce the amount of food consumed by Americans at home. Farmers also voluntarily stepped up production of crops and livestock, so that no Allied servicemen or American civilians were issued short rations during America's involvement in the conflict. After the United States entered the war in 1917, a complex shipping and distribution system was put into place. Like the CRB, the ARA operated as separate departments: one for provisioning of rations, for which people paid a meager sum; and another for benevolence, for which necessities were given at no cost. Hoover ordered that ten to twelve million children in the liberated countries get first priority for provisions for many of them were dangerously malnourished. In the year following the Armistice, the ARA brought in and distributed 27 million tons of food, seeds, clothing, medical and other supplies together valued at $5.5 billion. Among its numerous activities, the ARA directed coal mines and railroad operations and ran a delousing program to obliterate the typhus epidemic that cost over 10,000 lives in eastern Europe. In addition to supervising general relief activities, Hoover created the privately funded Children's Relief Fund, which cared for some 8 million children in central and eastern Europe.


Best, Gary Dean. Herbert Hoover: The Postpresidential Years, 1933–1964. Stanford, CA: Hoover Institution Press, 1983.

Gelfand, Lawrence E., ed. Herbert Hoover: The Great War and Its Aftermath, 1914–1923. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1979.

Nash, George H. The Life of Herbert Hoover, 3 vols. New York: Norton, 1983–1996.

Wilson, Joan Hoff. Herbert Hoover: Forgotten Progressive. Boston: Little, Brown, 1975.

Internet Resources

The Herbert Hoover Presidential Library-Museum. Available at <http://www.hoover.archives.gov>.

The Hoover Institution on War, Revolution, and Peace. Stanford University. Available at <http://www-hoover.stanford.edu>.

Stephen R. Ortiz

See also:Bonus March; Gold Star Mothers Pilgrimage; Red Cross, American.

Hoover, Herbert Clark

views updated May 14 2018


Herbert Clark Hoover was the thirty-first president of the United States, serving from 1929 to 1932. A wealthy mining engineer, Hoover directed humanitarian relief efforts during and after World Wars I and II. His presidency was devastated by the stock market crash of 1929 and the ensuing Great Depression.

Hoover was born August 10, 1874, in West Branch, Iowa. His father and mother died when he was young, and he was raised by an uncle in Oregon. He entered the first first-year class at Stanford University and graduated in 1895 with a degree in mining engineering. He became an expert on managing and reorganizing mines throughout the world. He spent time in Australia and China before setting up his own engineering firm in London in 1908. By 1914 Hoover had become a millionaire.

Hoover became involved in relief work during world war i. In 1914 he served as director of the American Relief Commission in England, which helped one hundred twenty thousand U.S. citizens return home after being stranded at the outbreak of the war. The British government then asked him to lead the Commission for Relief in Belgium. His main achievement during this period was the distribution of supplies to civilian victims of the war in Belgium and France.

After the United States entered the war in 1917, President woodrow wilson named Hoover U.S. food administrator. In this capacity Hoover coordinated the production and conservation of food supplies that could be used for the war effort. Hoover also chaired the European Relief and Reconstruction Commission, directing activities of numerous relief departments and organizing the distribution of provisions. After the war Hoover coordinated the American Relief Administration. This agency provided food to millions during the famine of 1921 in the Soviet Union.

"Free speech does not live many hours after free industry and free commerce die."
—Herbert Hoover

Hoover's humanitarian efforts made him an international figure. Democrats and Republicans sought to make him a presidential candidate in 1920, but Hoover rejected their offers. Instead, in 1921 he accepted the position of secretary of commerce in the administration of President warren g. harding, a Republican.

Hoover was an energetic administrator, reorganizing the department and expanding its oversight into commercial aviation, highway safety, and radio broadcasting. He chaired commissions that established the Hoover Dam and the St. Lawrence Seaway.

In 1928 Hoover won the Republican presidential nomination. He easily defeated Democrat Alfred E. Smith, on a platform of continued economic prosperity and support for prohibition.

Hoover devoted the early days of his presidency to improving the economic conditions of farmers. He advocated foreign tariffs on imported farm products as a way to protect domestic farm prices. Congress went beyond Hoover's recommendation and in 1930 enacted the Hawley-Smoot Tariff Act (19 U.S.C.A. § 1303 et seq.), which placed tariffs on nonfarm products as well. The act severely damaged U.S. foreign trade.

The control of Prohibition pursuant to the eighteenth amendment and the volstead act (41 Stat. 305 [1919]) had become a serious problem by 1929. organized crime had seized the opportunity to sell illegal alcohol. The only way large-scale liquor and speakeasy traffic could flourish was with the cooperation of law enforcement, so state and local law enforcement agencies were tainted with corruption. In 1929 Hoover established the National Commission on Law Observance and Law Enforcement, appointing george w. wickersham to direct an investigation of the effectiveness of law enforcement practices in the United States. The wickersham commission report was an important inquiry into the practices of the U.S. criminal justice system. The report examined all facets of police work and, for the first time, discussed police brutality and the "third degree" method of interrogating suspects. The report called for the professionalization of police.

The U.S. economy appeared to be robust in 1929, but a rising stock market had been built on stock purchases financed by widespread borrowing. When the stock market crashed on October 29, individuals, banks, and other economic institutions were devastated. Hoover sought to inspire public confidence by meeting with business leaders and by proclaiming that the economic downturn would be brief.

Hoover's prediction was wrong. The United States slid into the worst economic depression in

its history. Hoover resisted massive federal intervention because he believed that the economy would correct itself. He did approve some federal public works projects that provided jobs, but he opposed federal aid to the unemployed. In his view private charity should help those who had fallen on hard times.

In 1932, with 12 million people out of work and hundreds of banks failing, Hoover created the Reconstruction Finance Corporation (RFC) to extend loans to revitalize industry and to keep banks from going into bankruptcy. Congress authorized the RFC to loan up to $300 million to states for relief. Many persons viewed these actions as too little and too late.

The troubles of the Hoover administration culminated in the Bonus Army March on Washington, D.C. In 1932 World War I veterans demanded monetary bonuses that had been promised them in 1924, even though the bonuses were not scheduled to be paid until 1945. The House of Representatives had passed a bill authorizing early payment, and the veterans sought to pressure the Senate to follow suit. More than fifteen thousand veterans, in desperate need of funds, organized a march on Washington, D.C., to secure immediate payment from the government. The "bonus army" constructed a makeshift city and declared that its members were ready to stay until their goal was achieved. Hoover dispatched federal troops to destroy the encampment and drive the veterans out of the nation's capital. For doing so he received nationwide criticism.

The republican party nominated Hoover for a second term in 1932, but his candidacy attracted little enthusiasm. The democratic party nominee, New York Governor franklin d. roosevelt, mounted a vigorous campaign against Hoover's economic policies, calling for a "new deal" for U.S. citizens. Roosevelt promised to balance the budget, provide relief to the unemployed, help the farmer, and repeal Prohibition. He carried forty-two of the forty-eight states.

Hoover was angered by Roosevelt's new deal, which made the federal government the dominant player in the national economy. In 1934 he published The Challenge to Liberty, which attacked Roosevelt and his policies. He then withdrew from public life until 1946, when President harry s. truman asked him to return to relief work. Hoover subsequently directed the Famine Emergency Commission, which distributed food supplies to war-torn nations. In 1947 Truman authorized him to investigate the executive department of the U.S. government. The resulting Hoover Commission proposed changes in the executive branch that saved money and streamlined government.

Hoover had a continuing interest in the Hoover Institution on War, Revolution, and Peace, which he founded at Stanford in 1919 and which remains an important research center. He published his memoirs in three volumes (1951–52) and The Ordeal of Woodrow Wilson (1958).

Hoover lived longer after leaving the presidency than did any other president. He died at age ninety on October 20, 1964, in New York City.

further readings

Walch, Timothy, ed. 2003. Uncommon Americans: The Lives and Legacies of Herbert and Lou Henry Hoover. West-port, Conn.: Praeger.

Hoover, Herbert Clark

views updated May 18 2018

Hoover, Herbert Clark (1874–1964) 31st US President (1929–33). Acclaimed for his work with victims of war, he was secretary of commerce under presidents Harding and Coolidge. After winning the Republican nomination for president in 1928, Hoover easily defeated Alfred E. Smith. During his first year in office, the economy was shattered by the Wall Street Crash and the ensuing Great Depression. With his belief in individual enterprise and distrust of government interference, Hoover failed to provide sufficient government resources to deal with the Depression. In 1932, he was resoundingly defeated by Franklin D. Roosevelt's promise of a New Deal.

http://archives.gov; http://www.whitehouse.gov/history/presidents

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